Kentucky won the SEC regular-season title outright on Saturday by defeating Auburn 73-66 inside Rupp Arena. The Wildcats never trailed in the second half and scooted past the Tigers late by riding Immanuel Quickley’s 12 second-half points and hitting free throws late to ice it. It snapped Auburn’s two-game winning streak over Kentucky and sapped its chances to three-peat over the Wildcats — something the program has never accomplished.
The win gives John Calipari his sixth SEC regular-season championship since taking over the Kentucky job in 2009, and it’s Kentucky’s 10th SEC regular-season championship since 2000. The program’s tally of regular-season titles is now 49 — more than triple any other SEC program in the conference’s history.
While Auburn managed to keep it within a single-digit margin the entirety of the second half, Kentucky’s chances to claim the SEC was never in real peril. Each time Auburn had a run, Kentucky had a key steal or blocked shot to counter the momentum. As a team, the Tigers crumbled, too, hitting just two of their 16 3-point attempts in the second half and missing 23 of their 32 shots from the floor. J’Von McCormick scored all 13 of his points in the second half to keep Auburn alive but the duo of Nick Richards and Quickley pushed the Wildcats to their conference-clinching win.
Here are three takeaways from Kentucky’s win.
1. Immanuel Quickley is the SEC Player of the Year: Just give it to him now. He’s earned it. Quickley was nails in this one, and all while going just 3 of 10 from the floor. That’s because he made all 11 free-throw attempts, led the team in rebounds (12), and came up with one of the biggest shots (a 3-pointer early in the second half) that helped set the tone early for UK.
2. Elite guard play is why I’m buying Kentucky stock: Kentucky doesn’t have a John Wall or Kemba Walker — a singular guard capable of leading a team to a deep run — but it does have a killer combination of multiple guards. And that’s why I’m buying into this Kentucky team. Ashton Hagans can lock down any other point guard with his defense. Tyrese Maxey can slice through concrete with his straight-line driving ability. And Quickley? Well, the nickname John Calipari has given him — which can’t be printed here — suggests UK trusts this kid in the biggest of moments.
3. Fade Auburn: Bruce Pearl’s done an incredible job with this team. He lost his top three scorers from last year’s Final Four team and has built the Tigers to a 24-5 overall record — good for second-place in the SEC if the league ended today. But this team’s been riding a fine line all season and is bound to get burned: it has played four overtime games, one double OT game, and won every one of them. It’s entirely possible this is a 19-win quality team masquerading as a 24-win team. It’s a testament to Pearl that he’s gotten as much out of this team as he has, but I’m fading Auburn into March.