KANSAS CITY, Mo. (KT) — Kentucky has already beaten Auburn twice this season but in order to punch a ticket to the Final Four for the first time in four years, the Wildcats will need to repeat the feat for a third time Sunday.
And it won’t be easy. The Tigers (29-9) have won 11 straight since dropping an 80-53 decision to the Wildcats on Feb. 23 in Lexington and will have to carry on without one of their top scorers — sophomore forward Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL in a 97-80 win over top-seeded North Carolina Friday night.
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl confirmed the diagnosis Saturday and Okeke is scheduled to have surgery Tuesday. Kentucky coach John Calipari was “physically ill” after receiving word on Okeke’s season-ending injury.
“The crazy thing is, you know, not only is their team playing as well as any team in the country right now, they’re beating people by 25,” Calipari said. “Not only is that the case, but he was also playing as though he was their best player, which he probably was. I feel bad for him. (I) feel bad for his family and his teammates.”
Kentucky knows how it feels to be without a key component in the lineup. The Wildcats were without Reid Travis for five games and didn’t have PJ Washington in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky wasn’t rattled by the two injuries and compiled a 6-1 mark in the absence of both players.
Like Kentucky, the Tigers are seeking a similar response here Sunday and looking for extra motivation.
“It’s going to motivate us, knowing that one of our soldiers aren’t able to be out there and battle with us,” Auburn guard Bryce Brown said. “On their side of the ball, I feel like (PJ) Washington is kind of fresh and he’s probably just eager to get out there and just ready to compete. So, we both have certain things going to motivate us, but the better team wins, I feel like.”
Kentucky (30-6) kept its national title run alive with a 62-58 triumph over Houston Thursday, setting up an All-Southeastern Conference Midwest Region finale.
Auburn, which became the first team in history to defeat powerhouses Kansas and North Carolina in consecutive fashion in the NCAA Tournament, is seeking its first appearance in the national semifinals. The Tigers have also claimed three straight victories over Top 10 opponents, including an 84-64 shellacking of Tennessee in the SEC championship game two weeks ago in Nashville.
“We started talking about that as soon as the field came out,” Pearl said. “I think you’ve got to, as a coach, be able to show them a path to success. And so it’s not looking past anybody, this is what it is, this is what we got to get through. What an incredible opportunity to go out there and make history. Of all the matchups we’ve had, Kentucky will be the most difficult matchup.”
Although the Wildcats handled the Tigers easily in Lexington, Calipari isn’t looking back when it comes to the team’s third matchup against Auburn.
“The game (in Lexington) has no bearing on this game, really doesn’t,” he said. “We’re playing them a third time. It’s going to be a really hard game. They’re playing out of their minds rights now. They’re shooting balls, they’re playing loose and aggressive. We know. Those other two games have no bearing on this game.”
The players agreed, including Ashton Hagans, who knocked down a pair of 3-pointers and scored 14 points against the Tigers in the previous meeting between the two conference foes.
“The third time is not always going to be easy,” Hagans said. “We can’ t look at what we did in the regular season. It’s March Madness and nobody wants to go home. They’re going to come out and fight and give us their all. We’ve just got to go out there and try to keep this thing going.”
Like Hagans, Immanuel Quickley said the contest “is not going to be an easy game at all.”
“Auburn is a really good team (and) they shoot a lot of threes,” he said. “It’s really not about the Xs and Os, it’s going to be about fight. Everybody knows it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season. As long as you can stay alive, you’ve got hope and we’re just going to come out, play hard and play aggressive and try to get a win.”
The main goal, however, is to claim the top prize next weekend in Minneapolis.
“We’ve got one more game to prove how good we are,” Washington said. “We’re just kind of trying to come out tomorrow and look out to play tough and how we’ve been playing the rest of the season. If we did that, we’ll be fine. Our goal is to win the whole thing. That’s always in the back of our minds.”
Gametracker: Kentucky vs. Auburn, 2:20 p.m. Sunday. TV/Radio: CBS, UK Radio Network.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.