The Tigers (18-1, 7-0 Southeastern Conference) rallied from a 10-point deficit to win their 15th straight in likely the biggest home game since Auburn Arena opened in 2010. It was big enough that the traditional football school had students set up tents Friday morning, camping out to make sure they got in.
The Tigers, who have matched the highest ranking in program history, made it worth the wait. Fans chanted No. 1 in the final moments, hoping to supplant Gonzaga.
Kentucky’s No. 2 scorer, TyTy Washington, only played eight minutes and scored four points before being helped off the court with a left ankle injury. He didn’t return.
Johnson made 3 of 5 3-pointers for Auburn. Kessler hit 8 of 10 shots and had seven rebounds. Jabari Smith had 14 points and seven boards for the Tigers, who hit their first 15 free throws in the second half.
Wendell Green Jr. was scoreless for the first 28 minutes, then hit a pair of 3-pointers in a 25-second span and finished with 11 points.
Oscar Tshiebwe had 16 points, 14 rebounds and four blocked shots for Kentucky (15-4, 5-2). Kellan Grady made 4 of 7 3-pointers and scored 17 points. Sahvir Wheeler, Johnson’s former teammate at Georgia, also scored 17 points and had four assists.
The Tigers, who trailed by 10 points during the first half, took a 64-52 lead with 6:07 remaining. Johnson hit three free throws after getting fouled on a 3-point shot — as Jaylin Williams and Jabari Smith had earlier in the half.
Grady’s 3-pointer from the right corner cut it to four points with 3:20 to play.
The Wildcats scored 13 consecutive points to build a double-digit lead six minutes into the game. Auburn managed to whittle it down to 33-29 by halftime with back to back dunks by Kessler in the final 38 seconds.
Kentucky was short-handed without Washington and cooled off after a hot start. The Wildcats did shoot 50% (29 of 58).
Auburn made 26 of 44 shots (56.8%) to outpace the league’s highest scoring team. The Tigers have won six of the last 11 meetings in a series mostly dominated by Kentucky historically.
The Tigers are hoping this win, coupled with a blowout of last-place Georgia, will be enough to secure their first No. 1 ranking. Kentucky likely won’t fall far after beating Texas A&M in mid-week.
Auburn visits Missouri on Tuesday night.
Kentucky hosts Mississippi State on Tuesday night.