AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn Arena got plenty loud on Wednesday night. When Jared Harper found Anfernee McLemore for an alley-oop dunk to give Auburn back the lead against Kentucky with 5:52 remaining, it was as if the lid was blown off the place. Then, moments later, McLemore blocked a shot on the other end of the court and the decibel level nudged even higher.
The crowd rose to an ear-piercing euphoria as the team predicted in the preseason to finish ninth in the SEC increased its lead atop the conference down the home stretch.
But the levee never truly broke here on The Plains. When the clock struck zero and Auburn had beaten Kentucky, 76-66, there was nothing surprising about the final outcome. Take away the names and the tradition of each program and what remained was a nine-point favorite handling its business at home.
When the public address announcer warned fans to stay off the court, they actually listened. They knew that this time was different.
Flash back to two years ago and that wasn’t the case. After a sub-.500 Auburn team upset then-No. 14 Kentucky, fans stormed the court and the SEC dropped a $100,000 fine on the Tigers. But it didn’t matter. The only questions were where to send the check and how soon?
There was no need to get carried away this time, though. Auburn, ranked 10th in the latest poll, was simply the better team. The Tigers may even be worthy of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky? Well, the student section was chanting “N-I-T! N-I-T!” late in the game for a reason as the unranked Wildcats suffered their fourth straight loss.
Was Bruce Pearl surprised he just beat Kentucky for the third time in program history? Only a little bit, he explained.
Sure, their length was bothersome, he said. And, yeah, Auburn didn’t shoot very well at all.
“But we’ve been doing it all year like this,” Pearl said. “At some point, Jared [Harper] and Bryce [Brown] make a couple of shots.”
Pearl was all smiles as he met with the media afterward.
This was the program he envisioned when he took over four years ago. It was the loudest he’d ever heard Auburn Arena.
“Our conditioning, our toughness, our grit, that’s why we won the game,” he said.
It didn’t matter that Kentucky had a handful of McDonald’s All-Americans and Auburn had none. As has been the case all season, there was no question which team was playing with more effort. There was no doubt who had the better chemistry.
Brown was right when he said that it was one of the worst offensive performances from Auburn all season. He was also right when he said that it didn’t rattle anyone. Even on an off night, they got the job done.
“We know we’re going to turn it around,” Brown said. “We know we’re going to pick it up. That’s one part where we’ve grown over the last year.”