Saturday provided the moment that Kentucky was waiting for.
It wasn't just that UK won 82-80 against a Auburn team ranked No. 14 in the nation. It wasn't that the win came on the road, in a rowdy environment, with Auburn alumnus Charles Barkley lapping up the drama a few feet from the baseline.
It's how Kentucky won. It was a close victory but it wasn't a shaky one. The No. 12 Wildcats looked better collectively, as a team, with almost everyone contributing big plays, than it has the entire season.
The Kentucky we saw on Saturday is a Cats squad good enough to make the Final Four. It's a UK crew that was dangerous on defense, big on the glass, solid in shot selection -- with an array of shooters and slashers and players not shrinking in a tight spot. Coaches will take almost any win of any kind on the road in conference play, but with this, it feels like a morale-booster for a Kentucky team looking to climb back into top-10 status nationally.
It would've been one thing just to see the freshmen play well, win or lose. But this was an all-hands success. The Wildcats (14-3, 4-1 SEC) logged their third road win of the season, doing so despite a fevered rally attempt from Auburn late. Doing so despite a terrible flagrant-foul call against PJ Washington in the closing 90 seconds, when Auburn was ready to flip the outcome.
But UK freshman Tyler Herro hit big shots and made key free throws late. He scored 20, as did freshman Keldon Johnson. Four out of five UK players scored in double digits, the only one failing to do so being Ashton Hagans, who had six rebounds and seven assists and served as the team's emotional center early on.
And over the past five games, no Kentucky player has been as good as Hagans.
Forwards Reid Travis and PJ Washington played better as a tandem than they had all season.
Jared Harper's 3-pointer to give Auburn an 80-79 lead late in the second half was a thrilling moment. It seemed, right there, that Auburn was going to take it. But Herro didn't wilt on the ensuing possession, sinking two foul shots. Then, in the closing seconds, it was freshman Immanuel Quickley who came up with a rebound and prevented Auburn from getting a good final look to tie or win the game.
What a win. Tennessee is still both statistically and realistically the best team in the SEC, but Saturday was Kentucky's statement that it's pushing for the No. 2 spot and can give UT a run. (Those teams don't meet until Feb. 16.)
And check out what Kentucky has pulled off over the past month:
- Neutral-court win against North Carolina
- Road win against Louisville
- Twenty-point road win over Georgia
- All-around impressive win at Auburn
This is not-so-quietly turning into a nice season, and Kentucky's moving back toward playing the way many prognosticators expected it to back in the preseason.
As for Auburn, the loss is damaging. You get an opportunity against a good opponent in your building, move in close late, but can't pull it off? Bruce Pearl is going to gnaw on this for a while. The Tigers are 0-4 against the four toughest opponents they've face this season (Duke, NC State, Ole Miss, Kentucky), and the best wins have come over Washington and Murray State. Auburn's not short on opportunities going forward, so it's going to need to start beating the top 30-type opponents if it's going to have any shot at a good seed in March.
Unfortunately, Auburn didn't have big man Austin Wiley for this game. Wiley sat out due to a lower leg injury. He's not expected to suit up for the Tigers for the next two weeks. That will be something to track closely, as Wiley provides Auburn with size and rebounding that is needs to be elite teams.
The John Calipari-Pearl rivalry is a great one for that league and of course college basketball. For Kentucky to be just the second team in 26 tries to win at Auburn Arena speaks to how great a job Pearl has done turning that program around and how formidable of an opponent Kentucky has grown into in the past month.