That was the message from Kentucky coach John Calipari after his Wildcats lost their third straight game — the first time that has happened in his nine-year tenure.
“We play for March,” he said.
With March and Selection Sunday fast approaching, Kentucky needs to string together some wins starting with Wednesday’s visit to No. 10 Auburn.
“We’ve still got time,” Calipari said, according to the website SEC Country. “Been in this situation a couple different times at Kentucky and you know every team we play is giving us their best shot so when we get this, we’ll bust through. But it’s getting old right now.”
“Each week that goes by, it gets harder to get this thing to where you want it to go. At some point, you’re right, somebody has to step up and lead and say, ‘hey, enough is enough.’”
In Saturday’s 85-74 loss at Texas A&M, the Wildcats (17-8, 6-6 SEC) were outscored 35-9 to start the second half, turning a four-point Kentucky lead into a 61-39 deficit with 10:22 to go.
“You can tell: This has got to be the youngest Kentucky team I’ve ever played against,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said. “They made mistakes that freshmen make in the heat of the game on the road. They played like a young team tonight.?
Kentucky’s roster, the nation’s youngest, boasts eight freshmen, four sophomores and zero seniors.
The Wildcats’ youthfulness is aging their coach.
“(Kennedy) hit me after and says, ‘Do you know how young your team is’ And I said, ‘Yeah, and I’m getting older by the day,’” Calipari said.
The schedule doesn’t get any easier as the Wildcats travel to face the Tigers before a Saturday meeting with Alabama, which is coming off a 28-point win over then-No. 15 Tennessee.
Basketball fever has gripped football-mad Auburn, Ala., as the Tigers (22-3, 10-2) have won all 15 home games and taken a two-game lead in the SEC.
Former Auburn head coach Sonny Smith credits Bruce Pearl, now in his fourth season as the Tigers head man.
“(Fans have) started taking buses to games,” Smith told the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader. “You haven’t seen that in the Auburn program in many years. Maybe ever.”
More than 200 fans traveled to Georgia on Saturday to watch their Tigers rout the Bulldogs 78-61.
“They’re more enthused than I’ve ever seen them,” said Smith, who became Auburn’s coach 40 years ago and now does commentary on radio broadcasts of Auburn games. “Standing-room-only crowds. Basketball is relevant now to people. And that’s new. It’s the talk of the town.”
Kentucky will face Auburn’s fifth home sellout crowd of the season, but the Wildcats bring with them at least one advantage: size.
“The only time (the Tigers) have trouble is because of size,” Smith said. “Size matters. And it doesn’t have to be size on the inside. It can be size on the perimeter that gives us trouble, too. That’s why I think Kentucky is going to be a tremendous challenge.”
The Tigers are a perimeter-oriented team with their three leading scorers, guards Bryce Brown, Mustapha Heron and Jared Harper averaging 46.2 points per game.
“We trust each other,” Heron said. “We trust Bruce Pearl’s process. We try to play for each other and having fun makes a huge difference.”
The Tigers have been good at overcoming adversity on and off the court.
An FBI investigation of college basketball led to the dismissal of assistant coach Chuck Person and the ineligibility of front court starters Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy.
Five times this season — including in three SEC games — Auburn has won after trailing by double-digits in the second half.
“They don’t give up,” Pearl said.
Brown, who missed Saturday’s game with a shoulder strain, is likely to be back on the court after practicing on Monday.
“He’s shooting a little bit, he’s moving a little bit,” Pearl said, according to the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser. “He’s got a better chance to play on Wednesday than when he did on, obviously, Saturday.”
Brown, who injured the shoulder on a dunk in an 81-80 loss to Texas A&M on Feb. 7, shot 3-pointers and free throws during Monday’s practice session.