It doesn't matter that Kentucky came to Auburn Arena three games under .500 — beating the premiere team in the SEC is still "historic," Bruce Pearl said.
The Tigers have now done it in four consecutive seasons, thanks to a 66-59 victory Saturday. The latest was led by sophomores Allen Flanigan and Devan Cambridge, who scored 21 and 13 points, respectively.
Here are three things we learned in the win for Auburn (8-6, 2-4 SEC) over Kentucky (4-8, 3-2):
1. Listen to your coach
A 20 percent-full Auburn Arena allowed everyone to hear Pearl’s message to players during a late first-half timeout, and it was loud and clear: “Shoot the ball.”
It came after Jaylin Williams pump-faked an open 3 before starting a drive to the basket in the closing seconds and drawing a non-shooting foul. The Tigers did a lot of that during the first half, either passing up looks or dribbling through shot clocks.
Maybe it was simply a result of the shots not falling. Auburn went into the break shooting an ugly 24.2% from the floor and 2-of-17 from 3-point range. But they weren’t necessarily bad looks.
So the Tigers heeded their coach's advice in the second half, shooting with the aggressiveness and decisiveness they showed at Georgia. The result was a 15-for-27 half from the floor (55.6 percent) and 15 free throws attempted — more than double Kentucky.
2. Auburn matched Kentucky at its own game
The Tigers outrebounded the big, physical Wildcats 41-38 overall and 16-15 on the offensive glass, where Kentucky ranks as one of the best teams in the country. Flanigan led the team with nine boards and Dylan Cardwell had eight.
"That was a big emphasis in this game just because Kentucky had a lot of big post players and big guards that like to crash down and get the offensive boards," Flanigan said. "They crash the offensive glass really hard. It was just us really trying to find a man and boxing out so we can get the ball and run in transition."
And Auburn's length and physicality contributed to a few of the game's biggest plays down the stretch, most notably JT Thor's back-to-back steals that led transition buckets (including his Euro step) and Williams' forced jump ball after a missed free throw that gave the home team the ball back up three with 25.7 seconds remaining.
3. Sharife Cooper doesn’t need to go off to make huge impact
The five-star freshman couldn’t get much to fall, especially after averaging 27 points in his first two games. He hit only 3 of 13 shots from the floor and missed all five of his 3-point attempts.
But he drew nine fouls and got to the free throw line five times, where he scored half of his 11 points. He assisted on eight of the Tigers' 23 made shots. He limited his turnovers to a career-low four, which was significant – Auburn committed only 14, which marked its lowest total in six SEC games.
And when Kentucky made it a two-point game twice late, Cooper answered – first with an assist on a Williams dunk, and then with a driving bucket of his own that stretched the lead back to two possessions.
He finished plus-12 in a game Auburn won by seven.
"I want him to carry us, but even when he doesn’t, we can still win," Pearl said. "That’s a really good sign."