No. 5 Kentucky 81, Auburn 73
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Kelenna Azubuike’s career game helped save No. 5 Kentucky from what would have been an embarrassing loss.
Azubuike had career highs of 30 points and 11 rebounds as the Wildcats held off an upset bid by undermanned Auburn for an 81-73 victory on Wednesday night.
“He’s been playing extremely well,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said of Azubuike. “Thank goodness. It came at the right time.”
Kentucky (21-3, 12-1 Southeastern Conference) didn’t pull away until the final minutes against Auburn (12-14, 3-10), the last-place team in the SEC West.
Still, Kentucky clinched at least a share of the SEC East title. The division title is the sixth straight for the Wildcats, who have finished no worse than second in the division since the league expanded in 1992.
Kentucky moved two games ahead of No. 16 Alabama in the overall SEC race with three games remaining. Kentucky will visit the Crimson Tide on Saturday.
Freshman Rajon Rondo, the Wildcats’ starting point guard, left the game in the second half with a bruised rib. Smith said Rondo’s status was day-to-day. Rondo had seven assists.
Kentucky has won 22 straight games over SEC West teams, but against Auburn, as they have several times this season, the Wildcats allowed a lesser opponent to stay in the game. Auburn, a team with little depth and without a player taller than 6-foot-6, tied the game at 51 with 11:02 left on two free throws by Quinnel Brown.
Freshman guard Ramel Bradley started a 9-0 Kentucky run with a 3-pointer, and ended it with an assist to seldom-used 7-foot center Lukasz Obrzut, who scored to give Kentucky a 60-51 lead with 7:38 left.
Auburn, which ranks second in the SEC in 3-pointers attempted and made, stayed close thanks to a 12-of-28 effort from behind the arc and a 40-35 rebounding advantage.
“When you get 21 second chances, you can do a lot of damage,” Smith said, referring to the Tigers’ offensive rebounds. “Rebounding is something we’ve got to do better.”
The Tigers were as close as 72-66 with 1:40 left, but Kentucky then went 9-of-10 from the free throw line.
Azubuike, a 6-5 junior swingman, hit five of those free throws, finishing 9-of-11 from the line and 9-of-17 from the field. His point total was the highest this season by a Kentucky player.
“He was the best player on the floor without a doubt,” Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said of Azubuike. “He can score every way. His arms look like most guys’ legs.”
Freshman guard Toney Douglas led Auburn with 21 points, all in the second half, and went 5-of-9 from 3-point range. Nathan Watson added 15 points for Auburn, while Brown had 11 points and nine rebounds.
“Toney in the second half finally got off his tough stretch,” Lebo said. “He was moving with the ball like a wild banshee. In the first half, he was in quicksand.”
With its size advantage, Kentucky wasted little time pounding the ball inside, a strategy that led to two dunks by Randolph Morris in the first four minutes. When the Tigers collapsed inside, the ball went back outside to Azubuike, who had two 3-pointers in the first three minutes.
Still, despite Azubuike’s 16 first-half points, Auburn managed to take the lead twice, briefly, late in the half before the Wildcats finished the half up 36-32.
Douglas, who entered the game averaging 16.9 points, scored 13 in a 5-minute span of the second half as the Tigers erased an eight-point deficit and pulled even at 51-51.
“We made mistakes and careless turnovers,” Douglas said. “We threw the ball away and when you play a good team at home they capitalize on those mistakes.”
Chuck Hayes scored 13 points for Kentucky, while Morris added 12 on 5-of-6 shooting.