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Not so fast
Savvy UK uses experience to dump upstart Auburn
Posted: Saturday March 06, 1999 05:47 PM
By John Donovan, CNN/SI
ATLANTA -- One day before they rip open their first NCAA Tournament invitation in 11 years, the No. 4 Auburn Tigers found out that they still have a ways to go before they can dance with the best of the big boys.
Defending national champion Kentucky, no better than the third-best team in the Southeastern Conference this season, blasted out to a 17-point early first-half lead Saturday, scraped together three critical baskets midway through the second half, then pulled away for a 69-57 win over Auburn in the semifinals of the SEC Tournament.
The win undoubtedly will help Kentucky's bid for a higher seed in the NCAAs when the brackets are announced Sunday evening. And the loss almost certainly will cost Auburn, the regular-season SEC champs, a No. 1 seed in its first tournament appearance since 1988.
"Whatever," said Auburn coach Cliff Ellis, sounding almost resigned to the Tigers' not-altogether-terrible fate. "Anything that's in the tournament is good. We just take it. Whatever happens, happens."
Auburn (27-3) has lost two of its three games to the Wildcats, who held the Tigers to season lows in points and shooting percentage. Auburn shot a miserable 30 percent for the game, including 8-for-30 from 3-point range.
The 30 tries from behind the arc were a season high for the Tigers, and not a good sign for a team that relies on forwards Chris Porter and Bryant Smith for most of its scoring.
Porter was held to 12 points, Smith to four.
No. 14 Kentucky (23-8), winners of two of the last three national championships but losers of four of its last eight games, never trailed against Auburn and hit its first three 3-point tries in building a 17-point lead with 9:37 left in the first half.
But it was a second-half clutch basket by skinny Tayshaun Prince, a freshman guard/forward from Compton, Calif., that sealed the Tigers' fate. With the shot clock below five seconds after the Tigers had pulled within six points at 48-42, Prince launched a 3-pointer from the right wing that somehow banked itself in.
"He didn't call it. We ought to call it off," Ellis said.
"A lot of people have hit those banks against us this year," said Scott Padgett, one of Kentucky's three senior starters. "So we'll take it."
Prince's basket wasn't even the final clutch shot. On the next trip down the floor, backup Desmond Allison leaned into the lane for a short jumper as the shot clock went off and sank a four-footer. And, finally, center Jamaal Magloire followed a miss by point guard Wayne Turner, again under shot-clock duress, and stuck it back for the basket that finally did in the Tigers.
Turner, who is within four games of breaking former Duke star Christian Laettner's record for most career games (the record stands at 148 games), finished with 13 points and seven assists.
"They made a run, but we never folded. We never froze," Turner said. "Finally, they gave up."
Turner, Padgett (who also had 13 points) and Heshimu Evans are the three seniors on the team and maybe the reason the Wildcats pulled this one out -- and a big reason the Wildcats have to be accounted for in the NCAA Tournament.
The Wildcats have now won eight straight SEC Tournament games, they're in their eighth straight SEC championship and they're unbeaten (at 12-0) in the Georgia Dome.
"We call it 'Cat-lanta,'" Evans said of the Atlanta dome, where Kentucky fans have flocked for years to follow their 'Cats.
"We know what it takes to win games," Turner said. "I don't think they expected us to jump out on them as early as we did. I saw a little worry on some of their guys."
Auburn, whose other loss came to Arkansas, is still learning what it takes to win against the best teams in the nation. It's a lesson the Tigers will have to learn fast.
"I think our team believes in themselves," said Ellis, the SEC's Coach of the Year. "I tell you what. It's been a long time since Auburn's been 27-3. You can chalk it up any way you want to chalk it up."
Unfortunately for the Tigers, this one will be chalked up as an "L."Meanwhile, Kentucky moves on to face No. 22 Arkansas in the SEC title game Sunday. The Razorbacks went to overtime to defeat Mississippi State 84-79 in Saturday's other semifinal.
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