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January 20, 2013

“We were playing scared”: Auburn hoops can’t match moment vs. defending champ Kentucky

Kentucky Auburn Basketball

AUBURN, Ala. – The following figures made a special appearance at Auburn Arena Saturday night: Gus Malzahn. Charles Barkley. Mike Mitchell’s jersey number on the south balcony. Chris Denson and Jordan Price. And hundreds and hundreds of rowdy students in the AU Jungle all hopped up on pizza and Monster energy drinks, delivered personally by Malzahn himself.

For all of that, Nerlens Noel had only two responses: a wag of the finger, and a shake of the head.

Not here. Not in your house.

Kentucky may not be the juggernaut it was last year, but it’s still one of the most explosive college basketball teams around, as the Wildcats surgically proved in the second half of a 75-53 throttling to spoil Auburn’s pomp and circumstance in the worst home loss of coach Tony Barbee’s three seasons.

“We were playing scared, point blank and simple. That’s all it was,” Auburn star guard Frankie Sullivan said. “You can’t beat nobody playing like that. We had a great crowd come out and support us, and we let them down. It’s embarrassing.”

The electricity was palpable, fueled by the students lining up hours before tipoff and greeted by its new head football coach Malzahn and athletic director Jay Jacobs, stocked with goodies any college student could love.

Oh, and a pregame ceremony honoring the late Mitchell for his accomplishments as an All-American, as well as 9,121 throaty fans filling sold-out Auburn Arena with noise on “Orange Out” night, didn’t hurt either.

The night seemed right when Auburn (8-9, 2-2 SEC) clawed its way through an ugly first 20 minutes, staying within five points of the mighty Wildcats and allowing for hope to prevail through a halftime featured by Malzahn grabbing a microphone and briefly pumping up the crowd.

But the Wildcats didn’t win last year’s national championship without facing some hostile crowds. Sure, it’s almost entirely a new cast of characters under coach John Calipari who boast their McDonald’s All-America credentials.

Simply put, though, these guys are good.

Noel swatted away three shots in the first four minutes – including a clean strip of Sullivan as he went up for a breakaway dunk – and ended up with seven blocks. The fifth, sending Allen Payne’s layup try into the Auburn bench, was self-celebrated by a sly grin and a disapproving wag of the index finger.

The Wildcats shot 67 percent in the second half, outscoring Auburn 45-28 down the stretch.

“We had lack of confidence. We were scared of the moment,” Barbee said. “You can’t beat a team like that without taking advantage of the opportunities when they present themselves.”

UK was without Willie Cauley-Stein, but Noel more than picked up the slack. So did Kyle Wiltjer, who came off the bench with a game-high 17 points, five assists and 3-for-6 3-point shooting.

“We had a real lack of aggression, a real lack of poise, just everybody looked a little shaken from the get-go,” senior Rob Chubb said. “A couple of guys were just not in their groove, because all the fans, this that and the other … the basket just shrank.”

About that 3-point line. Barkley hit the same amount of triples as the Tigers, who clanked 15 long balls on the night – just the third time in program history, and first occasion in nearly 16 years, that Auburn has gone oh-fer from deep.

“We have 50 percent 3-point shooters on this team,” Barbee said. “Of our 15 threes, I bet maybe one was ‘kind’ of guarded. The other 14 were wide open with no one near you. What are you going to do?”

Auburn shot 34.8 percent, its second-lowest clip of the year. 53 points is also the second-worst output this season, after the Tigers had averaged 75.3 points their past seven games.

“Some of these guys haven’t played with packed houses like this,” Chubb reasoned, “so it was just a little bit of a shellshock for them.”

Auburn was actually so-so in the paint – centers Chubb and Asauhn Dixon-Tatum combined for 11-of-17 field goals and 24 points – but Sullivan was just 5-for-16.

The return of Denson and Price, who gutted out some minutes after missing multiple games with stress fractures in their foot, was an emotional spark. But it resulted in no points for two guys who when healthy are among Auburn’s best scorers.

Ryan Harrow added 12 points and eight assists for the Wildcats (12-5, 3-1), who have tumbled from a No. 3 preseason ranking but seemed to bounce back much to Calipari’s satisfaction – though Barbee’s former coach at UMass had plenty of pleasantries for the Tigers.

“I think his team has bought in. Tony doesn’t have to coach effort any more. Each individual player is playing the way they need to win,” said Calipari, who has coached three different schools in the Final Four. “Early this year, that was not the case. That’s why I’m proud of what he’s doing here.”

Three-Pointers

- Shaq Johnson, after starting the past nine games, was benched the first half for “disciplinary reasons”, per Barbee. The freshman played 14 minutes of scoreless basketball.

- Barkley, Wesley Person and John Mengelt were on hand to help welcome Mitchell as the sixth man to have his Auburn basketball jersey retired. Mitchell passed away in 2011, but his son, Mike Jr., and family were presented with a framed uniform at midcourt.

- Malzahn was accompanied by his family, coordinators Rhett Lashlee and Ellis Johnson, and dozens of Tigers football players in section 116, while hosting numerous high school prospects taking their official visits to Auburn this weekend. National Signing Day is now 17 days away.

Final thought: Fun night for the fans, but the Tigers themselves will have a killer hangover in the morning.

Next up: The Tigers try to snap their two-game losing streak Wednesday at Vanderbilt, where Auburn has not won since 2000. The Commodores have won six straight in the series.

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