The victory moves the Tigers into the second round to face second seed and fifth-ranked Tennessee at 2:15 p.m. CST on Friday at the Bi-Lo Center. Now, with one tournament win already under their belt, a win over the Tigers' second round opponent might be enough to secure Auburn a spot in the NCAA tournament.
However, Auburn head coach Nell Fortner said following the game that she thinks her team made a good case even better with Thursday's victory.
"I think that our team is deserving of an NCAA bid and today's win was a big step towards achieving that goal," Fortner said. "When you look at our RPI and strength of schedule, I think it's hard to tell us that we can't get into the field."
The Tigers pulled out to a 15-point lead midway through the second half, but had to fight off a furious charge from the Wildcats to hang on to a five-point victory. Auburn did not score a field goal in the final 3:31 of the game, but hit five of six free throw attempts during that stretch, and 14-15 at the charity stripe for the game, to hang on for the win.
"Today was just a good showing of what happens when your seniors step up and lead your team," Fortner explained. "I thought Kentucky did a great job of disrupting our offense with their defense all day. When they started their press, we didn't have very many answers for it. Brackett came up and hit a really big shot for us in the later part of the game."
Along with the win and the chance to face perennial SEC powerhouse Tennessee in the second round of the tournament, it also proved to be a big day for Tigers' junior center Marita Payne, who set the SEC single season record for blocks during the contest.
Payne, who was injured for the first meeting of the season between the Tigers and Wildcats, came into the game with 130 blocks on the season and swatted four Kentucky shots to surpass the former SEC single season mark of 131 that was set in 1992 by Vanderbilt's Heidi Gillingham.
Tigers' senior point guard Nicole Louden also had a strong game. The New Jersey native scored 23 points, pulled down 10 rebounds and hit all eight of her free throws to spur her team on to a much needed victory. Natasha Brackett added 18 points and three boards and feshman forward Alexis Ogubie scored nine points and grabbed five rebounds.
Nicole Louden had a big game for the Tigers on Thursday.
The Tigers looked like they could be taking the game into blowout country early on in the second half, but Kentucky came roaring back to make it a tight contest down the stretch. The Wildcats were led in the effort by senior forward Sara Potts, who scored 22 points and grabbed three rebounds in the game.
Kentucky cut the lead to seven points on the first basket of the second half by freshman center Sarah Elliot. However, after that layup with 19:26 remaining in the game, Auburn scored the next eight points and 14 of the next 22 to take a 48-34 lead with 9:19 remaining.
A quick 7-0 spurt by the Wildcats over the next two minutes, however, cut the Tigers' lead back to seven with 7:38 remaining. Two Louden free throws and a layup on a fast break pushed the lead back out to 11 with 7:05 remaining, but the Wildcats would not surrender.
Kentucky was able to score the next six points to draw the margin to within five at 47-52 with 4:37 left to play. A three-point play by Brackett at 3:31 was the Tigers' final field goal of the game and pushed the AU lead to 57-47. UK pulled back to within four with a Potts' free throw with 46 seconds remaining and would get as close as three, but Louden hit four straight free throws to ice the game.
Despite missing a number of open shots in the first half the Tigers were able to push the tempo of the game and control the offensive and defensive glass to take a 34-25 lead into the break.
The Wildcats outshot the Tigers 47.8 percent to 39.4 percent from the floor in the opening period. However, Auburn held a big advantage in on the boards pulling down 23 rebounds to Kentucky's 14.
Kentucky held on to its shooting advantage in the second half and outshot the Tigers 44.2 percent to 35.9 percent from the floor for the game. The Wildcats also had a great second half on the boards and outrebounded the Tigers 37-36 by the end of the contest.
The game got of to a quick pace in the opening half as the two teams combined to score 17 points in the first four minutes with the Tigers taking a 9-7 lead at the 16:01 mark on two Ogubie free throws.
That lead wouldn't last long as Elliot tied the game at nine on the Wildcats' next trip with one of two free throws and then Potts nailed a long three to give Kentucky a 12-9 lead at the 14:06 mark.
The Wildcats would take their final lead of the half at 16-15 at the 9:59 mark on a Jennifer Humphrey layup. Following that play the Tigers closed out the half on a 19-9 run to take a nine-point lead into the locker room.
The Tigers' second round game will tip-off at 2:15 p.m. and will be televised by Fox Sports South. Those interested in attending the game can get tickets the day of the game and prices are $15 for reserved seats and $10 for general admission for a single-session ticket.