Near Toomer’s Corner, did Kentucky turn the corner?

Auburn, Alabama is famous for Toomer’s Corner, the historic square near the middle of the university town that includes the beautiful if now damaged oak trees.

Ah, but will Kentucky remember its trip to the plains for another corner, one of its very own?

In Saturday night’s 75-53 thumping of the host Tigers at Auburn Arena, did John Calipari’s young team finally turn the corner?

“Strides,” is how Calipari quantified the progress in the post-game press conference, to the point where he even said he did not remember saying just four days before he could not imagine his young Cats getting a 20-point lead on anybody.

“I didn’t know he said that,” said point guard Ryan Harrow when asked Saturday about his coach’s statement.

“Did I say that?” asked Cal.

Kyle Wiltjer, sitting next to Harrow at the interview table, nodded his head in the affirmative. He said the Cats used it as a rallying cry in the second half to bury the home team, which they did, thanks in large part to Wiltjer’s second consecutive stellar game — 17 points, five assists.

Only here’s the thing: It’s the obviously down SEC and the opponent was Auburn, a team that UK has beaten 14 straight times and 28 of the last 29. True, the Tigers brought a 2-1 conference mark in the game, and the one loss was a double-overtime decision at Arkansas. But Tony Barbee’s club also owned an RPI of No. 168.

Saturday, Auburn was awful. Really awful. The Tigers somehow managed to miss all15 of their three-point shots. Before a sold-out crowd that included Sir Charles Barkley, they played tentative, tight, even admitting they were apparently intimidated by their own moment. The Tigers never matched the intensity of their crowd.

So was Kentucky’s best all-around game of the season — the Cats shot 66.7 percent the second half — an honest breakthrough or just the easy task of beating up on a bad team, of pushing the snowball downhill when it finally got rolling?

“I think they fed off our lack of confidence,” said Auburn’s Barbee.

And yet, if UK is going to make the NCAA Tournament and have any sort of decent seed in the Big Dance, it must do exactly what it did Saturday — separate itself from the disappointments at the back of the pack.

Florida’s pounding of visiting Missouri on Saturday appeared to reaffirm Billy Donovan;s veteran Gators are head-and-shoulders above the rest of the league. And Ole Miss remained undefeated in league play on Saturday, brushing aside a 25-minute first half blackout when the lights went off at the Tad Smith Coliseum, to take care of Arkansas.

Until Saturday, however, Kentucky had trouble taking care of the teams at the opposite end of the standings. It struggled at Vanderbilt, even in victory. It was nip-and-tuck with Tennessee last Tuesday, even in another win.

That wasn’t the case Saturday night. A five-point halftime lead became a 13-point lead just six minutes into the second half. There were highlight reel plays. There were smiles. The vibes were all good.

“The hard work is paying off,” said Harrow afterward, but he stopped short of making any sort of sweeping statement.

Given light of the convincing win, Calipari was asked how important Tuesday’;s game at Alabama was now?

“It’s just the next game,” said the coach. “We’re day-to-day.”

And corners aren’t turned in a day. It’s a gradual process, building up over a series of games until, as Calipari pointed out, every player is playing to his potential and every player is on the same page.

Kentucky may not have turned the corner Saturday night, but it gave the impression that maybe in fact it can.

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