Kentucky v Auburn
Getty Images

AUBURN, Ala. —  The most significant win of Kentucky's season so far came in stunning fashion Saturday night inside this orange-and-blue barn on the Farm they call "The Jungle."

The 22nd-ranked Wildcats strolled into Neville Arena and controlled the conversation for 40 minutes, a 70-59 triumph over a 13th-ranked Tigers team that was days removed from 40-piecing No. 11 South Carolina 101-61 under the same roof. Auburn had never beaten a top-15 team by that many points. This joint was a jungle on that night; on Saturday, it was a tangle for the Tigers.

Neville Arena has built up a reputation in the past five years as one of the harshest environments in college basketball, but UK made that a falsehood immediately, taking an early lead and never trailing thereafter. Kentucky delivered the first home loss of the season for Bruce Pearl's team, which was held to 30.9% shooting — one of its worst offensive outputs ever on his watch.

That 30.9% doubled as the best defensive field goal percentage for Kentucky this season. 

Auburn's 16-game home winning streak is also dust. 

Every upset has one side whose result carries more significance. Tonight the side slants to Kentucky, now an 18-7 squad, and one capable of more variance than seemingly any other Final Four contender. And yes, this is the EXACT type of result to verify Kentucky as a Final Four contender. As I wrote recently, the Wildcats still have long-term work to do on their defensive reputation to become a national title candidate, but nevertheless something may have fertilized on the Farm. In back-to-back games these Wildcats have proven they can beat NCAA Tournament teams the rugged way. On Tuesday night, it was a 75-63 win over Ole Miss. Saturday was more impressive because the opponent's better and it came on the road. Wouldn't you know it: Kentucky's held its past two foes to 61.0 points per game.  

Prior to those two results, Kentucky was giving up more than 80 per night.

The Tigers — ranked 11th at KenPom in offensive efficiency heading into the game — were held to .88 points per possession, their second-lowest offensive efficiency rate of the season. On Saturday, Auburn was victim to eight Kentucky steals. 

That's how UK got out with a win, despite a season-low four 3-pointers. 

"Kentucky can guard and they can turn it up when they want to," Auburn coach Bruce Pearl said. 

When John Calipari walked into the tiny, packed media room after his team's most consequential conquest through 25 games, he was in rare form. A man tired of the criticism against his guys.

"Please just leave my players, let them be young and learn and keep attacking me," he said before even sitting down for the press conference. "I may be the worst in the country, just attack me and leave these kids alone."

Nothing but praise for Calipari and his guys on this night. Their defense overwhelmed Auburn in general, but specifically in guard play. Kentucky's more talented, bigger and has the depth to match Auburn — usually. On Saturday, it actually didn't. The biggest reason UK fans will find hope in this win: Starting forward Tre Mitchell sat out due to a bum shoulder. Mitchell is a crucial veteran presence, but Kentucky overcame his absence thanks to the other irreplaceable old Cat: Antonio Reeves. A game-high 22 points. 

"When one guy can do what he did," said Calipari, "it's huge."

These Cats love to run, can look great on the move and have won with offense 3-point barrages. But that philosophy has its limits. Here, they planned for a slower game and did not want to get into a turnover volley. Kentucky kept it to 12 turnovers. The plan worked. Kentucky can win ugly. In winning at Auburn, Kentucky's showing it can win almost anywhere. 

Reeves said he felt a different vibe the locker room beforehand. 

"The guys were energized even before the game started," he said. "I could see the energy shifted when we were in the locker room. … This is one of those games when we were going to grind, going to be physical."

Ugonna Onyenso picked up again in Mitchell's absence, neutralizing Auburn's best player, Johni Broome, for stretches. Onyenso said the time had come for the players to hold each other accountable and take it upon themselves to have some pride carry over in a spot where "nobody believes we're going to win on the road."

This team does. Calipari knows it as well. Saturday night was Kentucky's fifth road victory. 

"For some reason we're better on the road than we are at home," Calipari said. "I don't have the answer, but we are, and it's probably, maybe at home we're expected to win every game."

Going into Saturday night, Auburn was rated (on offense and defense at KenPom) as the best team Pearl's ever had. Now, Pearl admitted to me before the game that it's far from a guarantee that the team will finish rated so highly in March. Fair. And an injury to Jaylin Williams is likely going to sideline him for a while, according to what Pearl told me afterward. 

Still: Kentucky dictating a game against a team projected as a No. 4 seed by the selection committee less than 12 hours earlier is convincing. Doing it on the road after never letting Mississippi have a belief of winning earlier this week is even more persuasive. 

Remember this night come March. It might be the performance that Kentucky taps into that gets it into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament — something Kentucky hasn't done since 2019. UK turned Auburn into the No. 11 team in offensive efficiency into the No. 22 team in two hours. Until tonight, I didn't think this team was capable of something like that.

Ole Miss was a step in the right direction. Auburn is a leap. If Calipari is going to pull off a late-season defensive turnaround, there can't be major setbacks moving forward. Don't expect THIS Kentucky defense every game, but at least we know it's capable of winning in more than one style.  

"I don't know, I guess we could do better," Calipari said, sardonically.

He was joking, but maybe he wasn't. Maybe he wants to take the arrows and lean into some villainy. Calipari has that cockiness back, Kentucky has a new edge and we've still got a month before the NCAA Tournament bracket is set. If we look up in four weeks and Kentucky is a trendy pick to make it to Phoenix, that trend will trace back to the Jungle on Saturday night. Most don't get out of here alive, but these Wildcats are now learning how to adapt to any environment.