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UK takes another step back with a ‘surprise’ road setback at Auburn

By Keith Taylor
KyForward senior sports writer

Kentucky hasn’t fared well away from home this season. The trend continued Saturday in a 75-70 loss at Auburn.

Just like their previous outing, the 14th-ranked Wildcats (13-4, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) built a double-digit lead in the second half, but this time, couldn’t hold on down the stretch as the Tigers (8-8, 2-3) ended an 18-game losing streak to Kentucky. The Wildcats led Mississippi State by 20 and held on to beat the Bulldogs 80-74 earlier this week.

 Derek Willis has his first career double-double Saturday at Auburn (UK Athletics Photo)

Derek Willis had his first career double-double Saturday at Auburn (UK Athletics Photo)

“You have to give Auburn credit,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I mean, they had a packed arena, those kids got down 12 and never stopped. They made big plays and free throws down the stretch. I mean, you know, they’re like a typical team that’s jacked up to play us. Got to give them credit.”

Of Kentucky’s four losses this season, three have occurred on an opponent’s home floor — two in conference — while the other (Ohio State) took place on a neutral site.

Kentucky senior Tyler Ulis was disappointed in the team’s showing against the Tigers and was “surprised” by the final result.

“I thought we’d come out ready to play, but we didn’t,” he said. “There’s no way we should have lost that game (and) we did.”

BOXSCORE: Auburn 75, Kentucky 70

Auburn made 12 3-pointers, and much to the disappointment of Calipari, backed up their pre-game rhetoric aimed at the Wildcats.

“It’s just disappointing when stuff is being said – like last year we beat West Virginia by 100 (after there was stuff said pregame),” he said. “This year, like, where’s the fight in this? That was disappointing.”

As has been the case for most of the season, the Wildcats got a solid out from the backcourt, led by Jamal Murray with 20 points, the fourth straight time and sixth in his career he’s finished with more than 20 points. Ulis followed Murray with 17 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

Derek Willis turned in a solid performance with 12 points and season-high 12 rebounds, becoming the fifth different Kentucky player to post a double-double this season.

Despite the numbers, Willis wasn’t happy with the outcome.

“We lost the game,” he said. “We lost, so it doesn’t matter how any of us played. Someone could have had 40 and 20 (points), and you still lost.”

Calipari said the production from Willis made him “proud” and hinted Willis may garner more playing time in the future.

“There’s an opportunity right now because some guys are not stepping up,” Calipari said. “If you ask me, he moved by all the other bigs. That’s my opinion. Now he has to be consistent with it. He rebounded, he tried.”

Like Calipari, Ulis liked the way Willis contributed in all phases of the game.

“That’s how you battle, what Derek did,” Ulis said. “He came running in, grabbing offensive boards, defensive boards, hitting big shots. And that’s how he’s supposed to play and he did it.”

While Willis, Ulis and Murray carried the load, Kentucky’s frontcourt struggled, with Alex Poythress, Skal Labissiere and Marcus Lee combining for 13 points and nine rebounds.

Although he’s not ready to hit the panic button, Calipari knows time isn’t a luxury and will be depending more on Murray and Isaiah Briscoe as the season progresses.

“They’re going to have to grow up fast if we’re going to take this thing to where it needs to go,” Calipari said.

At the same time, the Kentucky coach didn’t rule out any changes as his team prepares for a second straight road game at Arkansas Thursday.

“We’re fine,” he said. “I’m not worried about it. I just want to make some changes to see if guys will respond and fight.”

Game tracker: Kentucky at Arkansas, Thursday, 7 p.m. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a columnist and senior sports writer who covers University of Kentucky athletics for KyForward.com

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