AU had an opportunity to win the game until the final minutes, which have been a struggle for Coach Jeff Lebo's second Auburn team. The Tigers dropped to 0-5 in the league and 8-8 overall while UK improved to 3-2 in the SEC and 13-6 overall with its third straight victory.
Freshman forward Rasheem Barrett, who missed the last 10 minutes of the game when his back stiffened, was limping as he walked out of locker room after the game. He says he doesn't believe the 0-5 SEC start will cause his team to give up.
"We are going to stay together," vowed Barrett, who scored 12 points in a starting role while adding six rebounds. "We aren't going to be pointing fingers."
Rasheem Barrett takes a shot for the Tigers.
Lebo said he liked the effort of his team and UK coach Tubby Smith made it a point to mention how impressed he was with Auburn's intensity. "We battled hard, but we just weren't good enough," Lebo said.
The Auburn coach noted that when his team needed big plays in key stretches of the game, they didn't happen. He said UK made key plays and that was the difference in the game along with Auburn's early turnovers and poor free throw shooting (14-24).
"We shot the ball pretty well," Lebo said. "The turnovers early took us out of it."
Freshman Quantez Robertson led the Tigers in scoring with 14 points and he added five assists, two rebounds, one steal and four turnovers in his normal 40-minute ironman rule.
Crawford got his game-high 23 points by making 4-6 treys and 9-11 free throws. The Wildcats got to the foul line 20 times and made 20. Crawford also led all rebounders with nine.
Commenting his 11 foul shots, Crawford said, "I am trying to be aggressive out there. I'm trying to read the defense and take the ball to the basket. I was able to get in there and draw the fouls tonight and that got me to the line more than usual."
Guard Rajon Rondo scored 12 for the Wildcats and added eight rebounds plus three assists and four turnovers.
"Overall we played pretty good," Rondo said. "We just need to finish the game better off. That's the only thing I see, and rebound the ball better again."
Rondo noted that UK's ability to hold off a second half Auburn charge and stretch the lead up to 18 points with 5:27 to play was a key to victory. "We knew they were going to make a run," he said. "They never stopped working and they're a hard fighting team. We just had to sustain our intensity and keep pushing the ball."
For Auburn, senior Ronny LeMelle scored 13 points and sophomore guard Frank Tolbert added 11 points with just one turnover and got several ovations from the crowd of 6,651 for his hustle.
As a team, the Tigers turned ball over 17 times, four more than UK. Auburn shot 42 percent from the field to 43.1 for UK.
"We played a lot smarter tonight, but we have to get the ball more to our post people" UK's Smith said. His key inside player, Randolph Morris, finished the night with eight points, no rebounds and just 14 minutes of playing time after getting into foul trouble.
Kentucky opened the game with a physical man to man defense to take a quick 12-6 lead and led the entire game. At intermission, the Wildcats enjoyed a 39-28 advantage after scoring the final five points of the half.
Once again, turnovers were a big issue for the Tigers, who had a 11 in the first 10 minutes and a dozen at intermission to trail by double figures at halftime despite shooting 50 percent from the field and holding an 18-12 rebound range.
Auburn also hurt its cause at the foul line, hitting 6-13 opportunities in the first half.
The Wildcats had a good first half shooting the ball, making 15-28 shots, including 6-10 threes, as nine different Wildcats broke into the scoring column compared to just five Tigers.
The Tigers cut the gap to 34-28 with 3:03 left in the half and had a chance to pull even closer, but Frank Tolbert missed the front end of a one and one. LeMelle got a chance to cut the lead to three points, but missed an open trey with 1:36 before halftime.
Auburn needed to make an early run on the Wildcats to start the second half, but UK scored five quick points the stretch the margin to 16 points before Robertson was able to hit a pair of free throws at the 17:44 mark.
Auburn freshman forward Josh Dollard (left) makes a steal vs. Patrick Sparks.
The Tigers got the margin under 10 points at the 15:18 mark as LeMelle spotted up on the wing on a fastbreak to nail a three that cut the margin to 46-37.
Another three off the break, this one a shot by Frank Tolbert with 13:05 to play, narrowed the gap to 49-43 and prompted a timeout from UK coach Tubby Smith. The coach got the tempo slowed, partly with a sticky full-court pressure defense, and Auburn lost its momentum.
The Wildcats built the lead back into double digits at 55-45 midway through the half as the Tigers put the visitors into one-and-one situations at the free throw line at 11:19 and into the double bonus with 9:28 to play.
Back to back one on one moves down the middle by Rondo stretched the lead to 64-48 and sent fans heading to the exits. The lead would grow to 18 before Auburn chipped into it down the stretch and cut the final margin to nine, but never seriously threatened the Wildcats down the stretch run.