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Lexington, KY 2-25-23

Rupp Arena… was roaring. March Madness… is coming. The ‘Cats… are rolling. Saturday was a classic day of Kentucky basketball from start to finish in Lexington. The city was buzzing all morning, afternoon, and night as the ‘Cats dominated the Auburn Tigers in a 32-point beatdown. The Tigers kept the game close until the final minutes of the first half when the ‘Cats rattled off a quick 8-0 run to push their halftime lead to 11-points. The ‘Cats never looked back after that strong finish in the first half, as they ballooned their lead over the Tigers up to 40-points before finally relieving the pressure with some late game walk-on substitutions with a couple minutes left to play in the game. The ‘Cats are finally starting to hit their stride, and at the right time. Kentucky even got a little healthier as CJ Frederick returned to the court after missing the last 4 games with a rib injury. The win continues a 4-game winning streak for Kentucky, a run that features wins over Mississippi State, Tennessee, Florida, and now Auburn. A win over Vanderbilt next Wednesday will solidify the ‘Cats No. 3 position in the SEC tournament. Prior to their arrival Lexington, the Tigers had won 2 of their last 3 games, with the loss coming on the road at Vanderbilt. The Tigers have had a rocky road since the end of January, however, winning just 3 of their last 10 games after the big loss in Lexington. Their record on the season moved to (19-10, 9-7 SEC) as they have dropped to the No. 6 seed in the tournament, with substantial movement still possible for their possible seeding. The Tigers best offensive weapon on the season has been Morehead State transfer Johni Broome (14.1 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.4 BPG). Returning players Wendell Green Jr. (13.9 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 4.3 APG), Jaylin Williams (11.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 2.3 APG), and Allen Flanigan (9.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG) are the other primary contributors on the season for Auburn. The Tigers also struggles mightily from beyond the arc as a team, shooting just 30.1% on the season. As for the ‘Cats, they entered Saturdays matchup winners of 9 of their last 11 conference games, with the losses coming in consecutive outing versus Arkansas and Georgia. The ‘Cats offensive charge is led by Oscar Tshiebwe (16.2 PPG, 12.7 RPG), Antonio Reeves (13.1 PPG, 41.6% 3PT), Jacob Toppin (12.1 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.1 APG), and Cason Wallace (11.7 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 4.1 APG). That group of 4 has added its missing 5th with Frederick out with injury and playing injured in the last 5 games. That missing peg is Chris Livingston. Livingston has emerged to an average of 35 MPG, 11.4 PPG, and 7.6 RPG in the last 5 games. The rebounding effort has been prominent for Livingston, with his best rebounding game of his career coming earlier in the week against Florida when he collected 15 boards. The ‘Cats were home favorites with a spread of (-5.5). Some keys to the game for the ‘Cats were the continued emergence of Chris Livingston, 3PT shooting with Frederick returning to the mix, Wallace impact and offensive presence, Toppin’s continued dependability, and bench impact in Frederick/Ware/Collins/Thiero (Calipari did not make a substitution in the second half of the game against Florida earlier in the week).

The ‘Cats starting lineup featured Wallace, Reeves, Livingston, Toppin, and Tshiebwe.


Game Recap:

The scoring started with a Broome three as the shot clock was winding down to put the Tigers up 3-0. The ‘Cats responded quickly with a Tshiebwe driving layup. Toppin found Tshiebwe in transition for an alley-oop slam to put the ‘Cats up 4-3. After the Tigers took a 9-6 lead, Wallace hit 1-2 FT’s and nailed a three after Reeves contained a loose ball at mid-court to put the ‘Cats back in front 10-9 at the first media timeout. Tshiebwe battled his way to a layup in a matchup against Broome to put the ‘Cats up 12-9. Frederick and Thiero check in at the 12:33 mark in the first half for the first Kentucky substitutes of the game. Kentucky led 12-11 at the under 12-minute media timeout. A creative in-bounds play from the ‘Cats left Ware open for a dunk to push the lead to 14-11. After an Auburn response with a floater, Reeves hit a corner three to extend the Kentucky lead to 17-14 with 10-minutes to play. Wallace drove past two defenders to find Thiero for an rare open corner three for the Freshman that brought the score to 20-16 Kentucky. A Tshiebwe putback off an offensive rebound and a pull-up mid-range jumper from Toppin pushed the score to 24-18 ‘Cats with 6:59 to play. A quick 5-0 Auburn run narrowed the score to 24-23 Kentucky. Kentucky led 28-25 at the under 4-minute media timeout. After a driving Auburn layup, Wallace pushed the ball down the floor and finished with a slam to put the ‘Cats up 32-27. Toppin stepped into a three at the top of the key to extend the ‘Cats lead to 35-29. Good ball movement off a broken Kentucky play found an open Wallace for another three that brought the score to 38-29. Two Tshiebwe free-throws finished off an 8-0 Kentucky run to end the half and brought the halftime score to 40-29 ‘Cats. Kentucky shot an ultra-efficient 15-27 (56%) FG in the first half while holding the Tigers to just 34% from the field. The ‘Cats also went 5-6 (83%) from 3PT-range in the first half. Tshiebwe led the ‘Cats in the first half with 14-points and 10-rebounds. Wallace added 11 first half points, while Toppin mixed in 7-points.

Auburn scored the first points of the second half off a layup, but the ‘Cats responded with a Livingston putback that brought the score to 42-31. A transition Reeves up-and-under layup, plus the and-one free-throw, pushed the ‘Cats lead to 47-31 with 17:26 to play. Reeves nailed a driving floater to push the score to 49-31 Kentucky with the ‘Cats on a 9-0 run over the last 3-minutes. Two Wallace free-throws put the ‘Cats in front 53-34. An Auburn three brought he score to 53-37 at the under 12-minute media timeout. A Reeves transition three followed by a transition long two-pointer pushed the Kentucky lead to 21 at 58-37 with 11-minutes to play. Rupp Arena boomed with a roar. A nifty find from Wallace off a pick-and-roll found Tshiebwe for an easy layup that brought the score to 60-40. After an Auburn layup, the ‘Cats exploded for a quick 7-0 run that featured a Reeves deep three, a transition dunk from Livingston, and a Toppin putback that pushed the ‘Cats lead to 25 at 67-42 with 7:27 to play in the game. During that quick scoring stretch, the ‘Cats hit 6 of their last 7 FGs. Two Livingston free-throws followed by a powerful Tshiebwe slam stretched the ‘Cats lead to 71-42 with 6:10 remaining. Two Broome free-throws off a flagrant foul from Toppin ended an 11-0 Kentucky run and brought the score to 71-44. A Toppin floater followed by a transition slam from Tshiebwe put the ‘Cats in front by 33, 77-44. That Tshiebwe dunk capped off a 17-2 run by the ‘Cats over the course of the last 4:38-minutes. Another D-E-E-P Reeves three pushed the ‘Cats lead to 82-46 with 3:24 to play. A shifty step-back from Wallace brought the score to 86-46 ‘Cats. With the walk-ons entering with 2-minutes to play, the ‘Cats went on to win the game by a final score of 86-54.

The ’Cats dominated the second half, outscoring the Tigers 46-25 (46-17 before the final 2-minute stretch when Auburn finished the game on an 8-0 run). The ‘Cats locked down the Tigers on the defensive end, limiting Auburn to just 34% shooting form the field in the game and 33% (7-21) from 3PT. The ‘Cats, meanwhile, continued their efficient first half shooting display by finishing the game shooting 56% from the field and 62% (8-13 3PT) from beyond the arc. Kentucky dominated the rebounding battle, outrebounding the Tigers by a count of 41-23. Tshiebwe led all scorers with 22-points and added a game-high 17-rebounds. Reeves continued his hot shooting display from beyond the arc, shooting 4-7 from 3PT and finishing with 21-points. Toppin recorded a double-double with 13-points and 12-rebounds while also adding 5-assists. Wallace stuffed his stat sheet with 19-points, 3-rebounds, 9-assists, and 4-steals. Wallace also recorded the best plus/minus total in the game for the ‘Cats with a +42 in 37-minutes. Frederick played 7-minutes in his return to the floor and did not record a shot attempt. Overall, this was the most complete game the ‘Cats have played this season. They are starting to click on all cylinders, and at the perfect time. Through adversity and outside criticism, this team has kept their focus and stuck together, and its starting to pay off. After being outside of the projected field just a little over 2 weeks ago, the ‘Cats have played their way firmly into the tournament as a projected 8-seed, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. If the ‘Cats continue their current trajectory, they will only improve on their tournament seeding in the final two weeks before Selection Sunday (March 12).

The ’Cats will take on the Vanderbilt Commadores (16-13, 9-7 SEC) in their final home game of the season on Wednesday, March 1. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:00 p.m. with Senior Day festivities preceding. The game will be televised on the SEC Network.

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