LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Saturday's 72-62 victory over Auburn gave Kentucky the satisfaction of knowing it could win a gritty game.
Even better for the Wildcats was seeing their bench do some of the heavy lifting against the pesky Tigers. Kyle Wiltjer's 14 points led the way as they won their season-high fifth straight, but Willie Cauley-Stein added 12 off the bench as five Kentucky players scored in double figures for the second straight game.
The Wildcats (17-6, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) needed every bit of muscle they had to push back against the pesky Tigers in a physical game that got chippy at times. But with Tuesday's looming showdown at first-place Florida, it was just the preparation that Kentucky needed.
"I think we handled it really well," Cauley-Stein said of the game's physical nature. "Coach Cal preaches that. Every game you play is going to be tough like that. He keeps on saying, 'Last year, that's what they tried to do: Beat you up. And it didn't work.'
"This year, he said it's got to be the same way. You just can't let it get to you."
Other than a first-half confrontation between Auburn's Jordon Granger and Kentucky's Archie Goodwin resulting in Granger's ejection and two fouls on Goodwin, the Wildcats mostly kept their cool through the Tigers' aggressive play. Kentucky's loudest response came at the foul line, as it made 26 of 38 attempts that helped win a tight game.
Ryan Harrow also had 12 points, while Julius Mays and Nerlens Noel each added 10 points. Noel also had 12 rebounds for his third straight double-double, but the nation's top shot blocker had just one that came in the final minutes.
Reserve guard Jarrod Polson had three points and three rebounds but boosted Kentucky's energy in his 20 minutes, as did Cauley-Stein, who played 19.
Polson said Wildcats coach John Calipari has been telling him "to bring energy to the games. I've been trying to guard Ryan with that energy in practice and that has helped me out."
Kentucky's challenge now is carrying that energy and resolve to Gainesville against the Gators, who hold a one-game lead. That figures to be the Wildcats' biggest challenge of the season, but Calipari warned that others will follow over the second half of his team's SEC schedule.
Saturday's game provided a hint of what could come for Kentucky, which gained some distance from Auburn after Wiltjer's 3-pointer with 10:31 remaining provided its first double-digit lead at 54-42. The Wildcats led by as many as 16, but the Tigers kept battling back to make it interesting.
Auburn did this despite seeing center Rob Chubb and backup Asauhn Dixon-Tatum foul out 54 seconds apart with about 7½ minutes left. The Tigers still lost to Kentucky for the 15th straight time.
Chris Denson's 15 points led Auburn (9-14, 3-7), which made 7 of 13 from 3-point range.
"It's hard when they're both on the bench," Auburn coach Tony Barbee said of losing his big men. "With this team, it's so hard to score at the rim against them, you've got to make threes. ... We did something here that we didn't do at home and that's make threes, so we gave ourselves a chance."
Kentucky didn't expect this game to be as easy as its 22-point victory at Auburn, when the Wildcats shot 67 percent in the second half and 55 percent overall. That marked their most decisive SEC win this season until they matched it in Tuesday night's 77-55 romp over South Carolina.
What Calipari and the Rupp Arena crowd, which included the Wildcats' 1978 national championship team, got from his young squad was another dose of grind-it-out basketball similar to the first half of the teams' previous meeting, this time stretched over 40 minutes.
Both teams shot 43 percent, with Kentucky hitting 20 of 46 from the field while Auburn, which had been averaging 40 percent per game, was 22 of 51. The Wildcats outrebounded the Tigers 35-29 but had to work hard for each one.
"Tony came in with an unbelievable game plan," Calipari said of his former UMass player and Memphis assistant. "The game plan he put together was, 'let's be physical and then change defenses because they're a young team.' They're going man to zone on the same possession, and zone to man on the same possession. It slowed us down, confused us a bit."
Auburn led three times early on and stayed close to Kentucky throughout the first half. Kentucky started 4 of 10 while missing seven of eight 3-pointers but loosened up after Polson's 3-pointer, his first basket in three games, put the Wildcats up 16-14.
Several small leads followed for the Wildcats, who fought through the pressure to draw fouls. Kentucky was 9 of 14 from the free throw line in the first half, helping provide a 37-31 halftime lead.
Fouls became a bigger issue for Auburn early in the second half after Chubb picked up two quick ones and went to the bench with four at the 16:15 mark. Dixon-Tatum picked up his fourth soon after, opening a door for Kentucky.
Leading scorer Frankie Sullivan, who averaged 16.1 points entering the game, finished with eight for Auburn.