AUBURN, Ala. — A win wasn't in the cards for the Kentucky Wildcats Saturday afternoon, as the No. 12 Cats fell to No. 2 Auburn 80-71 inside Auburn Arena.
The Wildcats lost their second-leading scorer when TyTy Washington, who often kick starts UK's offense and is averaging over 14 points per game this season, left the game with an injury halfway through the first half. He did not return. Sahvir Wheeler suffered an injury of his own in the second half, but he did check back into the game.
Walker Kessler dominated the Cats, putting up a game-high 19 points on 8-10 shooting to go along with seven rebounds and two blocks. His length created problems for Oscar Tshiebwe, who still finished with a double-double (16 points and 14 rebounds). Wheeler and Kellan Grady led the way offensively for the Cats, scoring 17 points apiece.
Kentucky couldn't have asked for a better start to the game. The Cats got on the board first thanks to a steal and assist from Washington to Tshiebwe. The momentum was certainly in UK's favor, with the Cats going on a 13-0 run that pushed the lead to double digits (17-7) before the first TV timeout. In that time, Wheeler had six straight points. The Cats opened the game 7-of-12 from the floor and forced four early turnovers.
Jacob Toppin checked in with just over 13 minutes remaining in the first half, but he picked up two fouls in less than two minutes. The consecutive whistles sent Toppin back to the bench and ramped up the pressure on Keion Brooks Jr., who was the primary defender on Auburn's Jabari Smith for much of the game. The Tigers used the opportunity to go on a run of their own, which resulted in two big buckets from Smith and a tightened score.
Disaster struck with 8:20 on the clock, when Washington scored on a floater but landed on Tshiebwe's foot, rolling his own ankle in the process. Washington was helped off the court, having scored four points in the game's opening minutes. CBS sideline reporter Gary Parrish reported Washington was being helped to the locker room to be evaluated, but the freshman was able to put slight pressure on his ankle during the walk to the trainer's room.
Not long after, Brooks picked up his own second foul, which brought Lance Ware into the game in Brooks's absence. Wheeler and Toppin both appeared to suffer minor injuries during this stretch, but both Wildcats continued to play.
Despite the foul trouble and injuries throughout the first 20 minutes of play, the Wildcats entered the locker room leading 33-27, holding advantages in rebounds (15-12), second-chance points (12-4), points in the paint (26-18), fast-break points (11-0), blocks (4-2) and steals (7-0). However, Auburn was shooting at a higher clip, connecting on 55 percent of their shots from the field (12-22). Neither team was sinking shots from deep, with the Cats going 1-7 from the three-point line and the Tigers going 2-6.
At halftime, Washington was officially ruled out for the remainder of the game.
TyTy Washington has been ruled OUT for the game, per @KentuckyMBB— BBN Tonight (@BBNTonight) January 22, 2022
Mintz and Toppin joined the starting lineup in the second half. Following Kentucky's third shot-clock violation of the game, the momentum shifted Auburn's direction, beginning with the Tigers tying the game 38-38 with 15:38 to go. Auburn regained the lead for the first time since they led 7-6 early in the first half, going up 41-40 after Toppin was called for a foul on a missed Smith three-pointer.
The game's dynamic changed once again when Wheeler was blindsided by a screen, hitting the deck hard with 11:28 to play. After a timeout, Wheeler was taken to the locker room to undergo further evaluations. With its starting back court sidelined by injuries, the Wildcats fell behind by as many as ten points before Wheeler checked back in with 8:41 on the clock.
By then, the damage had been done. The Tigers were rolling in front of a sold-out home crowd, and the Cats were unable to regain the lead. Kentucky did cut Auburn's lead to four points off of a three-pointer by Kellan Grady, who went 4-7 from deep and finished with 17 points. Kentucky would not get any closer.
GRADY THREE keeps the hope alive!— BBN Tonight (@BBNTonight) January 22, 2022
Auburn leads 68-64 with 3:02 remaining
Auburn outscored the Cats 51-38 in the second half, and the Tigers are officially in the driver's seat for the SEC regular season title. Kentucky moves to 15-4 overall and 5-2 in the conference.
The Wildcats are back in action at home Tuesday night against Mississippi State. Tip-off is set for 9 p.m. on ESPN.