By LARRY VAUGHT
ST. LOUIS — How does Kentucky try to stop Collin Sexton?
The Alabama freshman point guard had 31 points on 10-for-16 shooting, including 6-for-8 from 3-point range, along with seven rebounds in 34 minutes in Friday’s 81-63 win over Auburn in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals. That came after he had 27 points and five assists in Thursday’s win over Texas A&M. He had 18 points in the second half, including the game-winning shot at the buzzer.
‘He is extremely powerful, and he’s strong. He’s fast. He does a great job getting into contact and scoring through contact. I think he — knowing that we don’t have either real shot blockers or real size, rim protectors, he was able to get downhill and do more damage against us,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said Friday. “I thought our guards did a pretty good job. It can be frustrating sometimes guarding him. He — it was — he’s a tough cover. Let’s just say that.”
Kentucky will find out Saturday at 1 p.m. EST in the SEC semifinals. Kentucky limited Sexton to 12 points in mid-February when the Cats won 81-71 in Rupp Arena to end a four-game losing streak.
“If he’s one of the top 10 players in the country and one of the top prospects that’s been talked about all year long, certainly, he’s capable of doing tremendous, tremendous one-on-one damage. The key is to be able to utilize his ability, and without it taking away from the team aspect,” Pearl said.
“He’s in a pretty good rhythm right now. He’s doing what he’s doing, and he can do it really productively. And the other guys are sort of fitting in around him, which is — when you’ve got a great player like that, you’ve got to let him go. You’ve got to let him go and let him get downhill, and he gets downhill as well as anybody.
“They’ve really done a good job in transition. They really emphasize getting it out and going and attacking in transition, and they’re really, really hard to guard, and they’re productive in transition. So they’ve got something going on right now.”
Alabama (19-14) was only the No. 9 seed in the SEC Tournament but likely has secured a NCAA Tournament berth with its two wins here already. However, a win over UK certainly would put the Tide into the NCA.
Kentucky coach John Calipari didn’t see Alabama’s win or how well Sexton played .
“Somebody just said he made five in a row from the three, went crazy, went off. So I imagine that he really played well. And I know how good he is,” Calipari said. “Look, they’ve got size. They’ve got scoring ability. They’ve got length. They’ve got toughness. They went through what we went through. They lost four, five in a row. They did exactly what we went through.
“And you won’t believe this, you don’t like going through that. Normally, if you can survive it, it makes your team better. It makes them stronger. How about this: It makes them appreciate winning more. It makes it so I’m not going to be selfish so we lose. I’ll give up something so that we win.
“And that’s what happened to this team. This team became a very happy team. They went from being shell-shocked and rocked, a little fearful, to a happy, aggressive team when we started winning. Part of it, we just had to win a game.”
Sexton, a McDonald’s All-American, said Alabama’s defense dominated Auburn the second half when Alabama went on a 20-2 run and Auburn missed 13 straight shots.
“Once we got stops, Coach told us to just run. And when I run, my teammates found me, and I was open. They told me, every time I’m open, just shoot it. Don’t worry about missing or anything else,” he said.
“We knew, when we came in this tournament, we had to win games, and we wanted to because we have a lot to prove. I feel like everybody counted us out, and Coach told us, just go out there and play.”