Sunday, March 16, 2003

Kentucky thumps Auburn

Advances to Sunday's SEC final against Mississippi State

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kentucky head coach Tubby Smith on the sideline against Auburn.
(AP photo)
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NEW ORLEANS - All around them, there is chaos. The nation's elite are tripping. Seedings are scrambled. The Kentucky Wildcats shrug and continue swinging the sickle.

"We see it," senior Keith Bogans said of the upsets. "We just try not to pay attention."

Saturday, UK roared from a halftime tie to a 78-58 victory over Auburn in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals. It was the 22nd consecutive victory for the second-ranked Wildcats (28-3).

Meanwhile, 13 of the nation's top 18 teams have lost in the past four days.

"A lot has to do with maturation and experience," UK coach Tubby Smith said. "Veteran teams are able to focus on their task at hand. And this team has been able to do that better than any team I've ever coached."

Now comes some symmetry: In 1996, then-No. 1 UK took a 27-game winning streak into the SEC championship game against Mississippi State in the Louisiana Superdome. The Wildcats lost, then went on to win the NCAA title.

Today, UK - poised to assume the No. 1 ranking - takes another long winning streak into the 1 p.m. SEC title game against Mississippi State in the Superdome. It's the first time these teams have met in the postseason since '96.

The 25th-ranked Bulldogs (21-8), who beat Louisiana State 76-61 in the other semifinal, gave UK a scare Feb. 23 in Lexington before falling 70-62.

With a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament surely forthcoming tonight, UK still has some unique goals attainable:

It can become the first SEC team since the 1952 Wildcats to go undefeated during the regular season and win the conference tournament. And it's poised to secure the nation's No. 1 ranking for the first time since its '96 team lost it in that loss to the Bulldogs - and claim the season-ending top ranking for the first time since 1978.

"We can't look at that stuff," UK sophomore Chuck Hayes said. "All we see right now is Mississippi State and a (tourney) championship."

This tunnel vision has been impressive. Saturday, the Wildcats insisted it was merely a matter of a mental adjustment that spelled their big run.

"When we went into halftime, there was nothing to say," UK junior Gerald Fitch said. "Everyone understood what was going wrong. We knew what Coach was going to say, so much that we probably could have said it for him."

That message: Up the defensive intensity.

Kentucky's Erik Daniels (14) tries to hang on to the rim after dunking over Auburn's Brandon Robinson (13). Daniels fell hard onto the court floor but later returned to the game.
(AP photo)
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Beginning with a Bogans basket in the final seconds of the first half, UK made 12 of 16 shots - including all five 3-point tries - in a 30-9 run over the next nine minutes of play.

Auburn (20-11) was 4-of-9 with five turnovers in that span and didn't grab a single rebound.

"Their rebounding was the major factor in them getting the lead," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. "And once the door opens for Kentucky, they don't let you back in."

UK was led in scoring by Princeton grad Erik Daniels, who totaled 17 points (8-of-11 shooting) and eight rebounds. He left the game briefly in the first half after bruising his right (non-shooting) hand in a fall.

Bogans and Fitch each scored 13 points.

This was the first time in the last 16 games UK didn't have the lead at intermission. In the second halves of its last 16 games, it has trailed for a total of less than four minutes.

"In the second half, we took them out of their offense," Bogans said. "We wanted to get up in their face. In the first half, they were getting too comfortable."

At that time, UK also wasn't comfortable. Auburn alternated box-and-one and triangle-and-two defenses, shadowing Bogans and Fitch, and UK was just 1-of-11 on 3-pointers in the first half against the zones.

"It confused us the whole first half," Hayes said of the zones. "But once you start knocking down shots, it puts a team on their heels. ... We'll take (playing) it as a learning experience."

After UK made the five consecutive 3-point attempts, the Tigers switched to man-to-man.

Meanwhile, Bogans was holding Auburn star Marquis Daniels to four second-half points on 1-of-7 shooting.

"We got our defensive intensity to where it needed to be," Bogans said.

And kept on rolling.

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