DULUTH, Ga. – Freshman point guard Morgan Toles scored a team-high 13 points for No. 10 seed Auburn (15-16) in the Southeastern Conference Tournament quarterfinals on Friday, but second-seeded Kentucky's (24-6) defense scored 22 points off Auburn turnovers as the Wildcats went on to a 65-54 win. Kentucky will face the winner of tonight's Mississippi State-Georgia game in the tournament semifinals.
"Obviously it is a disappointing loss," said Auburn head coach Nell Fortner. "But, it is a tremendous learning experience for our team. We were a little on the young side and this experience will pay off for us next year.
"That is something to look forward to, to have that experience coming back into this tournament, because it is a tough tournament."
Six of Auburn's nine active players are either freshmen or sophomores. The young group accounted for 28 of Auburn's 54 points in the game with Toles leading the way at 13.
"I have learned a lot over the past few games, especially these last few games," said Toles. "I learned how to be more consistent, just to play every game like it is your last. It has been a great experience for me."
Junior Alli Smalley, who scored a career-high 29 points Thursday in the first round against Florida, followed Toles with 11 points, connecting on just four of 14 shots from the field. Redshirt junior Jordan Greenleaf led the Tigers in rebounding with eight while picking up six points.
"We have great leadership coming back next year in Alli Smalley and Jordan Greenleaf, who will be seniors," said Fortner. "They played about every minute of every game since they've been at Auburn and playing well. I think we will be a hungrier team next year and definitely a more experienced team."
Auburn stayed with Kentucky through most of the first half, leading by as many as five points with 8:45 left in the period. But, Kentucky closed strong, finishing the half on an 18-6 run to take a 32-25 halftime lead into the lockerroom. Kentucky junior Victoria Dunlap scored 18 of her game-high 24 points in the first half to put the Wildcats ahead. Kentucky continued the run in the second half, extending the lead to 14 in the first three minutes, but Auburn had one more run left in it.
The Tigers went on an 11-0 run, fueled by five points from senior KeKe Carrier and four from Smalley, to cut the lead to three at 39-36 with 13:53 left in the game. Auburn could not maintain the pressure on Kentucky as the Wildcats scored eight of the next 10 points to re-establish their lead. UK would go on to twice lead by as many as 15 points with Auburn getting no closer than nine in the final minutes.
Dunlap, the SEC Player of the Year, led the Wildcats with 24 points, along with six rebounds, three steals and four blocked shots. SEC Freshman of the Year A'dia Mathies scored 15 points along with seven rebounds, three assists and two steals.
Auburn shot 41.1 percent from the field, connecting on 23 of 56 attempts, but could only find the goal on two of its 11 3-point attempts for 18.2 percent. The Tigers also struggled from the line, going 6-of-12. Auburn lost despite winning the rebounding battle, 39-32. The Tigers bench also out-performed UK's, scoring 17 points compared to 13 from the Wildcats. The difference came on the defensive end as Kentucky forced 20 Auburn turnovers on the back of 10 steals, turning them into 22 points on the other end.
The Wildcats shot 43.1 percent from the field (25-of-58) and 35.7 percent from 3-point range (5-of-14). Kentucky also connected on 10 of its 15 free throws for 66.7 percent.
The loss signifies the end of the season for Auburn. The Tigers finished with a 15-16 overall record and a 5-11 mark in SEC play. The game was the final game for Carrier, Auburn's lone senior. She finished the game with nine points, four rebounds and three blocked shots off the bench.