The junior forward had his best offensive performance since December, going 7-for-9 from the field and scoring a team-high 18 points to lead the No. 1 Wildcats to a 91-67 win over Auburn in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament.
Cauley-Stein was also a typical nuisance on the defensive end of the floor, helping lock down the SEC’s leading scorer, the Tigers’ K.T. Harrell, who finished 1-for-12 from the floor with the agile 7-footer shadowing him step for step. The UK big man added seven rebounds and three blocked shots to his impressive stat line.
“Willie was the best version of himself. That’s what we’re striving for,” Calipari said. “…That's Willie when you say, ‘Wow.’”
The big difference between this showing and the 2-for-9 shooting performance Cauley-Stein had on Friday against Florida?
“Just being engaged and playing with a lot of energy,” the player said. “It started on the defensive end and just carried over to the offensive end. So, I think that's what I was doing in the beginning of the year, just making sure, ‘Look, I'm going to lock down on defense and then if offense happens, then it happens.’ Today it just happened. So that's kind of my game plan going into the rest of these games.”
Kentucky (33-0) established a new program and league record for longest winning streak, eclipsing UK’s run of 32 games that spanned the 1954 and 1955 seasons.
In addition to Cauley-Stein’s strong effort, the Cats got 15 points from Andrew Harrison, and 12 apiece from Aaron Harrison, Trey Lyles and Devin Booker. Tyler Ulis chipped in with a strong all-around floor game, recording six points, six assists, five rebounds and two steals.
“Kentucky is a great basketball team,” Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. “They're a very complete team. They have got everything it takes. They make shots. They can do things inside and outside. They're dominating from the foul line, both in attempts and finishing. They're unselfish. They defend. I mean, it's the best team I've ever coached against.”
Playing their fourth game in as many days, the Tigers were held to 33.3 percent (18 of 54) from the field. Kentucky also had a 39-25 rebounding advantage.
Auburn (15-20) was the surprise team at this year’s SEC tourney, recording upsets of Mississippi State, Texas A&M and LSU before falling to the nation’s top-ranked team. Antoine Mason finished with 23 points to lead the Tigers.
In this AllWildcats "Rapid Recap" feature, we touch on some of the night's highs and lows:
WHAT WE LIKED: Kentucky looked more like its old self, defensively, in shutting down an Auburn team that features two or three nice offensive weapons. Cauley-Stein’s work against Harrell was the stuff that has NBA scouts drooling about his potential at the next level. The Cats came out with more energy and focus from the opening tip than they did Friday against Florida, and held the Tigers to just 7-for-25 shooting in building a 47-29 lead at the half.
KEY MOMENT: Somehow, Auburn managed to hang within 13 with 15:16 remaining in the game – which sounds like a lot until you consider UK beat this team 110-75 on Feb. 21 at Rupp Arena – but the Cats used a 14-0 run over the next five minutes to eliminate any doubt about the game’s outcome.
STAT OF THE DAY: The teams combined for 69 free throws with Auburn shooting and making (25 of 34) the most free throws against UK this season.
BY THE NUMBERS:
:13 - Time for which Auburn held the lead (2-0).
18 – Consecutive wins by Kentucky over Auburn.
26.0 – Antoine Mason’s scoring average in two meetings with the Cats this season. He is the son of the late Anthony Mason, an NBA standout in the 1990s.
26-5 – Kentucky’s advantage in bench scoring. A 3-pointer by Patrick Keim and free throws by Trayvon Reed and Alex Thompson were the only points Auburn could muster off the bench.
39-2 – Kentucky’s record in the SEC Tournament semifinals. The only two losses came in 1936 (Tennessee) and 2006 (South Carolina).
123-25 – The Cats’ all-time record in SEC Tournament games, an .831 wining percentage.
QUOTABLE: “When I was in the league at Tennessee, Kentucky had great players, but always there's something there. Maybe they weren't a great free-throw shooting team one year or they weren't a great 3-point shooting team. There was something that you could go -- weren't good in transition or something. There's nothing there that I can think of.” – Auburn coach Bruce Pearl on the Wildcats.
UP NEXT: Kentucky will face the winner of Saturday’s second semifinal game, Arkansas versus Georgia, on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET in the SEC championship game.