By LARRY VAUGHT
No Reid Travis, no problem for Kentucky.
The Wildcats (23-4) got another SEC Player of the Year-like performance from PJ Washington to lead the way to a surprisingly easy 80-53 victory over Auburn here Saturday in the first game playing without Travis after he sprained his knee Tuesday. An 18-0 run — UK’s longest of the season — to end the first half and start the second half put the game out of reach with 16 minutes left to play.
Washington had a career-high five 3-pointers and finished with 24 points, six rebounds, two assist, one block and one steal. He was 9-for-13 overall from the field and 5-for-8 from 3-point range. It was his sixth straight game to lead UK in scoring.
“He is playing like best player in the country,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
But the best news for UK was that he got plenty of help, including 17 points, four rebounds and two assists from Tyler Herro.
However, what really helped was that Keldon Johnson became a warrior on the boards and grabbed a career-high 17 rebounds to go with his eight points and also had five assists, another career best for the freshman.
“Keldon told on himself today. If he thinks he is getting two rebounds next game, I am going to be all over him,” Calipari said. “If you are able to go above the rim against a team like that … he went after the ball. He was screaming to grab balls. Really proud of him.”
If that wasn’t enough, how about point guard Ashton Hagans going 6-for-8 from the field and finishing with 14 points (his best total since he had 23 points at Georgia on Jan. 13), five assists and one steal. He had two 3-pointers and two more makes where he had his foot on the 3-point line. If he shoots like that from the perimeter, the Cats become even more difficult to defend.
“Sometime they understand without Reid, we all have to do this,” Calipari said.
Kentucky, which has won 13 of its last 14 games, was 11-for-24 from 3-point range —Herro was 3-for-6 — and Auburn, a team known for its 3-point prowess, was 8-for-27. The Tigers also had a season low in points, the fifth team UK has done that five times now to SEC opponents.
“They are becoming empowered and coaching each other. It’s fun to see,” Calipari said.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said what Kentucky does is good and simple.
“I am not surprised they are this good. I am surprised we were not competitive,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “I thought we legitimately had a chance to play with them. We were physically overwhelmed.
“We got manhandled in different way. Kentucky is one of best defensive teams in the country. Speaks to the character (of the players) and competitors (they are).”
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Kentucky is now tied with Tennessee and LSU at 12-2 in the SEC with four games left in regular-season play after LSU’s overtime win over Tennessee. Kentucky still has to play at Tennessee on March 2.