BY Bill Crockett
(MANCHESTER, Ky.) — No one in college basketball personifies the rah-rah coaching attitude quite like Auburn’s Bruce Pearl—nor does anyone deliver a better pregame pep talk. Unfortunately for the ‘Cats, and reminiscent of last season’s Elite Eight matchup, Calipari’s long-standing nemesis reeled off another motivational gem at a packed Auburn Arena on Saturday. Inspired, the Tigers pounded the glass and pulled away late, 75-66, against foul-plagued Kentucky.
Similar to John Calipari, Bruce Pearl employs a freewheeling up-tempo style of play defined by a fiery sideline presence. Good-natured frenemies, Calipari and Pearl exchanged pleasantries beforehand, but renewed hostilities afterward in the latest saga of their well-documented rivalry. After sweeping the regular-season series with Auburn last year, the memory of Kentucky’s stinging 77-71 overtime loss in the Midwest Regional finals remains fresh.
Officials whistled a combined 47 fouls which turned the highly anticipated rematch into a proverbial foul fest. Seventeenth-ranked Auburn (19-2, 6-2 SEC) connected on 33-of-44 free-throw attempts while thirteenth-ranked Kentucky (16-5, 6-2 SEC) made 20-of-24. “I don’t know if that’s the most free-throws taken against my team, but it might be,” coach John Calipari said. “But let me just tell you, they put their head down and they go.”
Irate fans immediately cried foul afterward due to the huge free-throw disparity. Sophomore Immanuel Quickley, who led the ‘Cats with 23-points, voiced his opinion during the press conference. “It was hard, but you can’t blame the refs for losing,” Quickley pointed out. “We just gotta take this one on the chin.” Freshman Tyrese Maxey, who’s averaged 19.4 points versus AP Top 25 teams, scored 22-points which kept the ‘Cats within striking distance.
Calipari conceded the disproportionate number of free-throws, but felt the decisive margin occurred on the boards. “The difference was the offensive rebounding and that came down to toughness,” Calipari interjected. “(Austin) Wiley had a field day on Nick (Richards) and not many people have done that to Nick, but he did.” Auburn dominated the offensive glass 17-6, producing 17 second-chance points. Overall, Auburn outrebounded the ‘Cats 42-28.
Auburn’s physicality neutralized Nick Richards’ effectiveness and made him a non-factor. Richards, who entered the contest averaging 14.4 points per game, scored 7-points and grabbed 7 rebounds. Calipari attributed Richards’ less than stellar performance to a lack of effort. “Why did you get outworked every (play),” Calipari questioned. “Tell us why. And whatever your answer is, fix it, because that’s what happened. He wanted it worse than you wanted it.”
Bruce Pearl echoed similar sentiments in regard to Richards. “I thought Austin Wiley had a huge impact on the game with his physical presence,” Pearl noted. “Nick Richards has been dominating lately, and Austin was just physically able to hang in there and negate some of it.” Although Richards struggled, the most troubling aspect might be that no one else picked up the slack. Combined, EJ Montgomery, Nate Sestina, and Keion Brooks, Jr. scored just 6-points.
The ‘Cats routinely made poor decisions on the offensive end of the floor. Questioned about his team’s decision-making, Calipari answered, “I don’t know because we got three point guards on the floor and I don’t understand when you have three point guards, how do you make bad decisions?” Limited by foul trouble, Ashton Hagans played just 20 minutes. Trailing 62-60, Hagans fouled out with 3:36 remaining, scoring just 5-points and committing 6 turnovers.
Locked in a dogfight throughout, Auburn clinched the game by outscoring Kentucky 16-6 down the stretch—the ‘Cats didn’t make a field goal during the final 2:15. Credit Bruce Pearl’s game plan which stifled Ashton Hagans and Nick Richards on both ends of the floor. Does Pearl have Calipari’s number? Maybe. Defensively, the ‘Cats forced just 7 turnovers in a game that featured 17 lead changes. With the loss, UK fell to 3-2 versus ranked opponents this season,