AUBURN— The Tigers rallied from a 17-point first-half deficit to earn its first win over a top-10 opponent in six years, defeating No. 7 Kentucky 66-61 in the SEC opener Sunday at Auburn Arena.
Junior Brandy Montgomery shook off a slow start to post a 27-point, seven-rebound day, including four crucial free throws to seal the victory in the final 13 seconds.
“I don’t think any word describes our team this afternoon except effort," Auburn head coach Terri Williams-Flournoy said. "That’s every possession offensively and defensively, and I thought that we just played with a great effort, with an intensity on the defensive end and just really getting after it.”
The Tigers (11-3, 1-0 SEC) won their SEC opener for the third time in four years and knocked off their first top-10 opponent since defeating No. 9 Georgia 67-53 in 2010. At No. 7 in both polls, Kentucky (11-1, 0-1) is the highest-ranked opponent Auburn has defeated since a 52-47 win over No. 6 Florida to claim the 1997 SEC Tournament title.
Trailing by nine at the half and as many as 17 late in the second quarter, Auburn took its first lead at 47-45 on a Katie Frerking jumper with 7:19 to play in the fourth. Although Kentucky would tie the score twice in the closing minutes, the Tigers would never trail again.
With the score tied 57-all, senior Tra'Cee Tanner drove to the basket for two and drew a foul, converting the three-point play to make it a 60-57 game with 1:46 left. A pair of Kentucky free throws inside a minute cut the lead to one, but freshman Erica Sanders made the biggest shot of her young career, knocking down a 15-foot jumper with 26 seconds left to give Auburn a 62-59 lead.
"I thought Erica Sanders came in and started right before halftime with the defensive effort diving on the floor," Williams-Flournoy said. "She probably has enough floor burns now to give somebody some. All of that was just effort, and I really think that she started it.”
Kentucky again pulled within a point with 15 seconds left on an Evelyn Akhator layup, then Kentucky had to commit three fouls to get the Tigers into the bonus. Freshman Janiah McKay went to the line with 13 seconds to play and missed both attempts, but Montgomery grabbed the offensive rebound and was fouled immediately, sending her to the line for two more. She made both to push Auburn's lead to 64-61; then, after a Wildcat miss at the other end, she made two more free throws to ice the game.
Auburn did not make a 3-pointer for the second straight game (0-10) but was even with Kentucky in the paint with 40 points apiece. The Tigers forced Kentucky into a season-high 26 turnovers, converting those into 25 points, and held the Wildcats to a season-low scoring output.
Auburn hits the road for the first time in SEC play on Thursday, Jan. 7, as they travel to Starkville, Miss., to take on No. 8 Mississippi State. Tip is set for 7:30 p.m. at Humphrey Coliseum, and SEC Network will have whip-around coverage of all seven league games that night.