Thursday, January 23, 2003
Kentucky 67, Auburn 51
UK shuts down streaking Tigers
By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer
LEXINGTON - This defense thing is getting serious. So is this winning streak. Kentucky derailed the Southeastern Conference's hottest team, Auburn, in a 67-51 victory Wednesday night in Rupp Arena.
That makes eight consecutive victories and a fortnight of ferocious defense.
"The most important thing right now is we're defending people," UK junior guard Cliff Hawkins said. "That's the reason why we're winning."
Auburn entered as the SEC's second-best shooting team at 50.4 percent. But UK held the Tigers to 38.1 percent shooting and forced them into a season-high 26 turnovers.
It was Auburn's lowest point total of the season and the lowest by a UK opponent. Auburn's 16 field goals were a season low by a UK opponent.
"We've been playing our best defense since we got here," junior guard Gerald Fitch said of UK's veterans. "We're just starting to jell right now."
Eighth-ranked UK (14-3) is 4-0 in the SEC for the first time in five seasons, and 5-1 against ranked teams.
Auburn (15-3, 4-1 SEC), ranked 24th, had a nine-game winning streak snapped.
"They're solid," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said of the Wildcats. "They're physical and they're strong. They play a certain way that their games are going to be ugly. But they're good at it."
Entering their Jan.11 against South Carolina, the Wildcats were allowing 43.9 percent shooting - worst in the SEC, and on pace to be their worst defensive percentage in 11 seasons.
Yet they have held each of their last four foes under 40 percent, combining for 37.1 percent shooting. The turnaround is most pronounced in the past five halves, when opponents shot just 34.1 percent (42-of-123) with 52 turnovers.
"Guys are taking pride in the ability to contain people," UK coach Tubby Smith said.
"Plus, we're starting to settle into a regular rotation. We've got veteran players, guys who have been in the system, and they're starting to execute."
One critical difference Wednesday was the second-half play of Fitch. The junior guard had just one first-half point on 0-of-6 shooting. But he made all five of his shots after intermission, including four 3-point tries, and led UK with 16 points.
"Kentucky's defense and Fitch," Ellis said. "That was the difference."
When Auburn crept ahead 38-37 eight minutes into the second half, Fitch started UK's decisive 18-2 run by feeding Erik Daniels for an inside basket. Fitch shortly thereafter scored eight straight points, including two 3-pointers.
"When he's hot, he can make shots in a hurry," Smith said of Fitch. "And that's a sign of maturity in our guys to find the guy with the hot hand."
The other storyline recently has been balance. UK had four double-figure scorers Wednesday, including season highs from reserves Jules Camara (13 points) and Cliff Hawkins (10).
Saturday against Notre Dame, it was the power trio of Chuck Hayes, Marquis Estill and Daniels combining for 60 points and 30 rebounds. Wednesday, the perimeter players thrived.
"We're not just a perimeter-oriented or inside-oriented team," guard Keith Bogans said.
Said Smith: "We try to create balance in everything we do, especially offensively. That creates a lot of problems for opposing teams."
UK's defense on Marquis Daniels was a particular highlight. The SEC's second-leading scorer (19.1 ppg) scored just 11 points on 5-of-14 shooting and committed seven turnovers.
The Wildcats rotated Hayes, Antwain Barbour and Bogans on Daniels.
"They have the best press defense we've seen, and they play great help defense," Ellis said.
Auburn was coming off an upset of then-No.9 Alabama, its first victory over a top-10 team since 1995. This marked the first time it had played back-to-back games against top-10 teams in 35 seasons.
Team rebounds - 2.
Team rebounds - 2.
3-pointers - A 2-14 (Daniels 1-4, Bird 1-4, Gaines 0-1, Robinson 0-1, Watson 0-2), UK 9-21 (Hayes 0-1, Fitch 4-8, Bogans 2-7, Hawkins 2-3, Heissenbuttel 0-1, Barbour 1-1). Technicals - None. Officials - Boudreaux, Eades, Adams. Attendance - 21,554.
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