Wall’s free throws secure No. 2 Kentucky’s win
AUBURN, Ala. (AP)—John Wall and No. 2 Kentucky were making youthful mistakes, and taking another team’s best shot.
It’s nothing new for the Wildcats, and neither was the final outcome.
Wall hit two free throws with 8.9 seconds left to finish off a sometimes shaky performance and help Kentucky remain unbeaten with a 72-67 victory over Auburn on Saturday.
“We’ve got everybody we play trying to make his name at our expense,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said. “That’s what happens every game we play. You’ve got to accept that challenge.”
The Wildcats (18-0, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) had a 13-point halftime lead wiped out and Wall, the heralded freshman, had six second-half turnovers. But Wall’s clutch foul shots secured Calipari’s 52nd consecutive victory in a regular-season conference game at Memphis and Kentucky, breaking Kentucky legend Adolph Rupp’s NCAA record.
It didn’t come without a scare.
DeWayne Reed cut Kentucky’s lead to 70-67 with two free throws with 1:08 left, then Eric Bledsoe missed an open 3-pointer and the ball went out of bounds to the Tigers (9-9, 0-3) with 37 seconds to play.
Reed missed a 3 after taking a handoff from Lucas Hargrove, and the Wildcats’ DeAndre Liggins grabbed the rebound and was fouled.
“We were trying to get Tay (Waller) to come off a screen at the top,” Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said. “Liggins was on him and he blew right through him. We had the handoff play at the end. He didn’t make the shot, but Liggins did a good job defensively.”
Kentucky inbounded the ball to Wall, who was quickly fouled and made the free throws that continued the program’s best start in 44 years.
A game the youthful Wildcats led by 19 points late in the first half became about self-preservation.
“It’s just not doing the right thing,” junior forward Patrick Patterson said. “We know in situations like that we need to calm down and run the offensive play to get it to the guy that can score.”
The Wildcats had shut down Auburn after Frankie Sullivan’s 3-pointer tied it at 60 with 8:23 left. The Tigers went 4 minutes without scoring as Kentucky used stingy defense to overcome some missed drives and turnovers
DeMarcus Cousins, a native of Mobile, had 16 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots in his first game back in his home state. He was 5 of 6 from the field and 6 of 10 from the free throw line.
“DeMarcus Cousins was probably a difference maker for us,” Calipari said. “He’s just a beast.”
Wall finished with 13 points and four assists. He gave a slight smile after hitting his first free throw in the final seconds to make it a two-possession game, then calmly made his second.
Fellow freshman Eric Bledsoe, who is from Birmingham, also had 13 points, while Patterson finished with 12.
Calipari liked how Bledsoe and Cousins handled the pressures of being back in Alabama.
“I thought they played pretty good for a homecoming,” he said. “Anytime I’ve ever brought a player in for a homecoming, they stink.”
Reed led Auburn with 19 points and six assists despite missing his first 10 shots. He kept firing away, taking 25 shots and making seven.
“We knew he was a spark plug like that,” Patterson said. “We knew that if he starts rolling, starts knocking down shots, he’s going to bring energy to his whole team. And that’s what happened.”
Sullivan made 3 of 5 3-point attempts and scored 10 of his 15 points in the second half. Lucas Hargrove added 10 points.
Auburn has lost 11 straight games against top 10 teams, including two in three days. The Tigers were routed 81-55 Thursday night at No. 9 Tennessee, but followed with a much stronger showing.
“They’re a great ball club,” Sullivan said. “We give them respect. But we don’t fear anybody.”
It was another close call for Kentucky, the fifth time the Wildcats have won either by five points or less or in overtime.
“My buddy said to me, ‘If they ever decide to play 40 minutes, call me and I’ll come watch,”’ Calipari said.
Kentucky committed 16 turnovers but shot 51 percent and capitalized on repeated trips to the free throw line. The Wildcats attempted 35 free throws, making 23.
All but eight came in the first half, when Kentucky built a 39-26 lead. Auburn shot 29 percent in the half and was outrebounded 27-14.
The Tigers bounced back to hit 16 of 29 shots in the second half.
“We were very fortunate to win the game,” Calipari said. “They were shooting 70 percent for probably the first 16 minutes of the second half. I can’t remember a team that’s done that to one of my teams.”