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No. 2 Auburn could be just two days away from its first No. 1 ranking in school history.
The Tigers (18-1, 7-0 SEC) won their 15th straight in defeating No. 12 Kentucky, 80-71, Saturday afternoon in front of a wild, sold-out crowd of 9,121 at Auburn Arena. No. 1 Gonzaga, meanwhile, did not play after a 78-62 win over unranked San Francisco on Thursday. The Associated Press poll comes out Monday.
“I can’t hear you. I can’t hear you,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said as he began an interview with CBS. “Look at our kids. Look at our students!”
Several Auburn basketball players had taken their jerseys off and were standing in the crowd with adoring fans as Pearl went on.
“I know this happens at North Carolina. I know this happens at Kansas,” Pearl said. “This is happening at Auburn, Alabama. We’re a football school.”
Former North Carolina center Walker Kessler led Auburn with 19 points and seven rebounds as his 7-foot-1 frame could not be adequately defended by Kentucky (15-4, 5-2).
Kessler, a sophomore from the Atlanta area who transferred after playing just eight minutes a game last season for the Tar Heels and averaging 4.4 points and 3.3 rebounds, slammed home several nearly uncontested dunks and scored often on lob passes.
“That’s something we thought we could guard,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Kessler also set several impenetrable screens with his 245 pounds. One knocked Kentucky guard Sahvir Wheeler to the floor, and he did not get up for a few minutes and had to leave the game for several more.
Kentucky forward Oscar Tshiebwe tried to warn Wheeler as he saw Kessler get set for the screen.
“I did scream at him,” Tshiebwe said. “But it (the Auburn crowd) was too loud. He didn’t hear, and he got hurt.”
Kentucky guard TyTy Washington also had to leave the game with a left ankle injury shortly after hitting a jumper for a 25-16 lead with 8:24 to go in the first half. He never returned, and Calipari did not know the extent of the injury.
With Washington out, Auburn shaved Kentucky’s lead to 33-29 at the break, then took over in the second half.
Guard K.D. Johnson added 17 for Auburn, and forward Jabari Smith scored 14 with seven rebounds.
“They’re really good, and this is an unbelievable environment,” Calipari said at halftime.
Wheeler and Kellan Grady each scored 17 for Kentucky, which had won four straight.
“I hope we see them again,” Grady said.
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