AUBURN, Ala. — No. 10 Auburn remains on the path toward a potential Southeastern Conference title and Kentucky is still mired in a slump.
It has more commonly been the other way around.
Bryce Brown returned from a shoulder injury to score 18 points and make four 3-pointers in leading the Tigers to a 76-66 victory over the struggling Wildcats on Wednesday night.
The Tigers (23-3, 11-2 SEC), undersized if not underdogs, overcame a horrid shooting start to take control defensively down the stretch.
“Our conditioning, our toughness, our resilience, our grit,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “That’s why we won the game.”
Jared Harper also scored 18 and had seven assists while making all nine free throw attempts for the league-leading Tigers.
Brown missed the Georgia game with a right shoulder injury and got off to a cool start against the Wildcats (17-9, 6-7), who dropped their fourth straight.
He missed his first four shots but delivered a couple of big 3s in the second half. Auburn announced he would start shortly before the game.
“I talked to coach (Wednesday) morning and I told him I probably wasn’t going to go because it was really stiff,” Brown said. “Around (the pre-game) shoot around, it felt pretty good. From there, I just decided I was going to play.”
Auburn’s certainly glad he did.
“I told him beforehand, I don’t think we win the game without him,” Pearl said.
Anfernee McLemore had 13 points and 11 rebounds. Mustapha Heron scored 11 despite 4-of-14 shooting. Desean Murray, who at 6-foot-3 was facing much taller players, had nine points, 11 rebounds and four assists.
Auburn also made 24 of 28 foul shots.
Kevin Knox led Kentucky with 19 points and PJ Washington added 13. The Wildcats didn’t make a basket in the last five minutes.
“We had our chance to win the game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We make some dumb, inexperienced plays down the stretch.”
But, he added, “We made strides.”
It was a role reversal of sorts for the two programs. The game marked only the third time a ranked Auburn team faced an unranked Kentucky team, and the first since 1987.
Auburn trailed by four points before starting a 13-2 run on Brown’s 3-pointer and subsequent layup off a steal by Anfernee McLemore. Heron hit a layup and Harper made two free throws to punctuate the run with Auburn leading 68-61 in the final four minutes.
Kentucky couldn’t close the gap again.
The Tigers started ice cold but still managed to take a 39-33 lead into the locker room. Auburn opened 1-of-16 shooting and missed its first nine 3-point attempts.
“We’re all shooters,” Brown said. “We don’t let it distract us.”
Kentucky: Has dropped four in a row for the first time since the end of the 2009 regular season. The Wildcats were unable to capitalize on a big size advantage against the Tigers.
Auburn: Has won seven of its last eight games and won consecutive home games against Kentucky for the first time in 28 years.
Calipari was asked if he has any concern about making the NCAA Tournament, still certainly in reach despite Auburn fans’ late “NIT” chant.
“I got one thought,” he said. “Let’s just try to win the next game. Just win a game. I really believe if we win a game, we’ll get it going.”
Added Pearl: “They’re a dangerous team.”
Kentucky: Hosts Alabama on Saturday in a CBS-televised game.
Auburn: Visits South Carolina on Saturday in the first of two late-season meetings.