By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
When the final horn sounded and the scoreboard read 77-71 in Auburn’s favor it was apparent that it just wasn’t meant to be. Like when all the stars align to create disorder in the universe the fundamental elements of college basketball lined up to help Auburn create disorder in the Midwest Regional Final game that the Kentucky Wildcats had in hand with 3:14 to go in the first half.
Kentucky had created a 30-20 lead through some strong inside play including putting the three Auburn forwards — Wiley, Spencer and Dunbar — in a precarious situation with foul trouble. Each player spent multiple minutes on the bench in the first half trying to avoid getting their third fouls.
But even at the three minute mark in the first half you could see the cracks beginning to form in the UK armor. Auburn’s coach, Bruce Pearl realized he had a mismatch with 5’11” Jared Harper and just about anybody UK put on him. With Tyler Herro, UK’s best perimeter defender, hounding Bryce Brown while nursing foul trouble of his own, UK coach John Calipari made no adjustments to the defense that proved effective. Time and time again Harper drove past a rotation of Ashton Hagans, Immanuel Quickley and Jemarl Baker to either lay the ball in the basket or dump it off to an Auburn inside player for the easy layup.
Not only could UK not get their normal defensive effort going but they also could not score consistently on offense. On this day the Wildcats shot poorly from the 3-point line by hitting an abysmal 23 percent and only 44 percent overall. It also didn’t help that UK went 12-for-21 from the free throw line for a very poor 57 percent, tied for the lowest percentage of the season.
Another element that lined up to hamper the Cats was inconsistent officiating. In the first half Auburn piled up a whopping 10 fouls to only have one foul called on the Tigers in the the second half’s last 12 minutes of regulation. To say the referees swallowed their whistle for the final 12 minutes would be an understatement. The inside game UK usually relies on couldn’t happen in the second half because of the constant shoves and banging down low by the Auburn defenders.
The last element that plagued the Wildcats today against Auburn was the same thing that has hurt this UK team all season. Lack of an accomplished point guard. Ashton Hagans had three assists and seven turnovers to go along with his 10 points. Hagans, with the exception of Ryan Harrow during the NIT season, has proven to be the worst match so far for the point guard position during the Calipari era.
He is slightly smaller at 6-3 than John Calipari prefers and has very little feel for the game at point guard. He is an inconsistent shooter at best, cannot beat his man off the dribble and doesn’t have a good enough basketball IQ to run the team in a half court set. His defense was repeatedly exposed in the game by Auburn’s guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown.
But with all that being said it took a tremendous effort by Auburn, a poor shooting day by Kentucky and inconsistent officiating between the two halves to create the upset that denied the Cats an opportunity to play for title number nine in Minneapolis.
The unfortunate part of the whole scenario is how similar in feel this loss is to the last tournament loss that really hurt under Calipari, the 38-1 team that lost to Wisconsin in the Final Four in 2015. In that game the same elements seem to line up — poor shooting and inconsistent officiating – and John Calipari had no coaching answers that day either.
It’s a shame to see senior Reid Travis and sophomore PJ Washington not get an opportunity to make it to the Final Four after all they have sacrificed for the team but in the end when the basketball stars align it just seems like basketball disorder follows. Unfortunately on this Sunday the UK players and coaches seemed to have no answer for how to overcome the elements.