The second-ranked Wildcats found Barbee's team similarly stubborn Wednesday night before finishing an uneven performance with a flourish in a 68-53 win over the Tigers on Wednesday night.
The Wildcats (16-1, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) had a 23-6 closing run for their second straight 15-point league win. They didn't take a double-digit lead over the Tigers (10-6, 0-2) until Anthony Davis scored on an alley-oop pass from Doron Lamb with 1:31 left.
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"We went on a run at the end of the game, but you all know it was a double-bucket game and they could have beat us," Calipari said.
It would have been a rarity. Kentucky has won the last 13 meetings and 27 of 28 against the Tigers.
But Barbee's Tigers held the Wildcats to 40.4 percent (23 of 57) shooting. Auburn held its own with a formidable frontcourt, and Kentucky was outrebounded for the second straight game (35-29).
"The guys fought their tails off," said Barbee, who played for Calipari at UMass and coached under him at Memphis. "We have to take this and expound on it and go to the next level.
"I found a style that I think is going to work for this team. It is to shorten the games and grind it out."
The Wildcats came into the game dominating the boards with an SEC-best 8.8-rebound margin over opponents, but lost out on a number of scrambles for the ball.
"They beat us all to balls," Calipari said. "Michael Gilchrist had one rebound until the end. They wanted it worse than we did. They played with desire we didn't have."
Anthony Davis and Lamb scored 14 points apiece for the Wildcats. Marquis Teague and Terrence Jones each had 12 points. Darius Miller went 3 of 5 from 3-point range for Kentucky and had nine points.
Davis had six rebounds and four blocks, but had his string of double-doubles end at five games.
"They really outhustled us on the boards," Davis said. "We started getting rebounds. At the end, we just had to get every rebound. Every possession counted."
Rob Chubb led Auburn with 14 points and eight rebounds, but missed all three of his shots in the second half. Chris Denson had 12 points.
Kentucky, which committed just eight turnovers, gradually gained control after Auburn took a 47-45 lead on Chubb's two free throws with 10:52 left.
Miller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist hit back-to-back 3s late in a 13-2 run that all but ended any concerns, and the Wildcats didn't let up from there. The biggest remaining question was if the Wildcats would have only their third single-digit win - the first two coming against then-top 5 teams North Carolina and Louisville.
Auburn didn't join that illustrious group.
Barbee fell to 0-5 coaching against his mentor, the first three coming at UTEP. The Tigers were coming off 29- and 30-point road losses to Florida State and Vanderbilt, which held Auburn to 35 points.
The Tigers kept it close even with leading scorers Kenny Gabriel and Frankie Sullivan in foul trouble. Gabriel had six points and Sullivan five after both came in averaging nearly 12.
Barbee moved to a bigger lineup with 6-foot-8 Adrian Forbes getting his first start. It paid off in the first half with the Tigers dominating the boards 21-11.
Miller, though, finished with a 3-pointer as time expired after a turnover to put the Wildcats ahead 32-28.
"The play at the end of the half was unbelievable execution," Calipari said. "We've run that scripted play probably 50 times, and I walked into halftime and said, `That's why we scripted it."'
He was glad to get the game with his former player out of the way.
"If we had lost, I would have been ecstatic for him," Calipari said. "He knows that."