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By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky may not have liked the game plan Auburn had, but it was one the Cats better get used to see more of in the weeks ahead.
The Tigers used what UK coach John Calipari called a “let’s be physical game plan” and switching defenses to confound UK at times here Saturday before the Wildcats finally won 72-62. The game had a flagrant technical foul on Auburn guard Frankie Sullivan for throwing Kyle Wiltjer into the front row on a fast break and another flagrant foul on Jordan Granger for throwing a punch at Archie Goodwin that led to the Auburn player’s ejection.
Kentucky went to the foul line and made 26 shots — compared to 11 of 17 for Auburn — in a game that Calipari joked could have had way more than the 50 fouls called that were.
Bottom line: This was a perfect game to get Kentucky ready to go to Florida Tuesday to play for the Southeastern Conference lead. The older, more experience Gators are going to be every bit as physical and confusing as Auburn but they will have a raucous crowd also cheering for them.
“This kind of gets your eyes opened (for Florida). They are physical. They have tough guards. They have a good inside-outside combination. It will be a tough environment. We’ve got to battle. The game will be up and down. We’ve got to be able to gut it out,” said Kentucky freshman Willie Cauley-Stein.
Auburn’s Chris Denson said UK better get ready to see much more physical play.
“I think we bothered them with how aggressive we were. You could tell at times they didn’t like it,” Denson said. “But that’s the way teams are going to play them. Get up in them and not let them do what they want.”
Remember that Auburn coach Tony Barbee played for Calipari at Massachusetts and also coached with him. Calipari wasn’t about to bad-mouth him after the game and started his postgame press conference by praising what Auburn did. For his part, Barbee liked the way his team “competed” and basically said a rough-and-tough game was the only chances the Tigers had against more talented UK. Barbee said from his perspective, “our guys played a clean game.” Johnson said the Tigers were not trying to “flagrant foul on purpose” even though it happened twice.
Of course, Cauley-Stein did admit that a quick look at the postgame film revealed that Goodwin had pushed Granger to start that first-half altercation.
“If somebody did that to us, you would swing, too,” Cauley-Stein said. “That’s how your mindset is.”
He also did call Auburn’s play “cheap” — but also said it was nothing out of the ordinary.
“Every game will be like that. I think we handled it really well. Coach Calipari said every game we play from now on will be like that. He said last year teams tried to beat up Kentucky and it did not work,” Cauley-Stein, who had 12 points, four rebounds and one assist off the bench, said. “You just have to do what you have to do to get a win.
“They were holding your jersey coming off screens. On rebounds, they would hold you down so you could not use your athleticism. Everybody plays us like that. It’s just a killer mindset that people have against Kentucky.”
Could that be because of the notoriety of UK’s program and recruiting success?
“Yes. That’s how it is every year here. We get great talent and teams play that way to even the playing field,” Cauley-Stein said. “We are really athletic and talented, so they hold you so you cannot outrun or outjump them.”
Kentucky, though, didn’t wilt from the physical play like it did at Alabama before it started this five-game win streak. Instead, the Cats got five players in double figures and won despite going 6-for-21 from 3-point range and blocking only four shots — including just one by Nerlens Noel (and that didn’t come until the final minute). Kentucky forced just nine turnovers and Auburn hit seven of 13 3’s.
“At the end of the day, it’s awin and I’ll move on,” Calipari said.
Just don’t expect him to act excited about playing for first place at Florida.
“Are you crazy? We’ve got Florida twice. We’ve got Missouri here. We’ve got to go to Georgia. We’ve got to go to Tennessee. What? We’re just trying to get better,” Calipari said. “I’m not worried about first place, second place, fifth place. No, just get better.
“Play for us. Get out of your own self’s way so you can now not feel the weight of the world on your. That’s what we’re zeroing in on now.”