Date story was published: Sunday, February 25, 1990
In a splendid game marred by critically timed indecision, Sean Woods and John Pelphrey moved boldly.
A three-pointer by Auburn's John Battle had tied the game 96-96 with 15 seconds left. Or did it whittle what was once an 11-point second-half Kentucky lead to 96-95? Incredibly, that significant matter of a point difference had not yet been decided.
The closest referee to Battle, Don Ferguson, turned his palms up, indicating that he could not tell if the freshman guard was inside the three- point line. His two refereeing brethren made no signal at all.
Meanwhile, the scoreboard operator added three points to Auburn's total, temporarily -- and correctly, as television replays indicated -- tying the score.
In the mounting confusion, Woods and Pelphrey moved with a keen certainty that brought Kentucky an officially scored 98-95 victory. Their boldness assured UK of at least a break-even season. The Cats improved to 14-12 overall with only road games at Mississippi Wednesday and Notre Dame on March 5 remaining.
"I was right behind him," Woods said of Battle. "I'm sure his feet were behind the line."
Woods raced with the inbounds pass, and fed Pelphrey in the left corner.
Pelphrey, who was "almost dead certain" the score was tied, faked his way down the baseline and lifted a 10-foot floater over a frantically retreating Auburn defender. It nestled in the basket with four seconds left, giving UK a to-be-determined lead.
The decision came as Auburn called time with three seconds left.
In UK's huddle, Coach Rick Pitino wondered why Woods and Pelphrey rushed a shot. Pitino did not see a referee signal three-point goal for Battle, did not look up at the scoreboard and, therefore, thought the Cats had a 96-95 lead to protect.
Pitino said he asked Woods in the huddle: "Why did you do that? We couldn't lose if you bring it out?"
Woods said he replied: "Hey, he was behind the three-point line."
No, Battle wasn't, came the official word as Auburn, then Kentucky, called timeouts to plot the final three seconds. Pelphrey's basket officially put UK ahead 98-95.
"Rather than talking to the kids about what we need to do and get their minds on what's taking place, we're halfway looking over our shoulder at the scorer's table," Auburn coach Tommy Joe Eagles said. "That's not a good situation. Two teams played too hard to have something like that happen at the end of that basketball game. When two teams laid it on the line as hard as these kids laid it on the line today, there's absolutely no reason for it to be missed.
"If it was missed," Eagles carefully added, mindful of the Southeastern Conference's sensitivity to criticism of the referees.
But he, along with several UK players, thought Battle's basket was a three- pointer. "When Coach (Pitino) asked 'What are you doing?' in our huddle, I thought my eyes must be going crazy," Deron Feldhaus said. "He was behind the line. I didn't say that. But that was what I was thinking."
Officially down 98-95, Auburn ran "a set play we run every day in practice," Eagles said. Senior Derrick Dennison took the inbounds pass to the middle of the court, and he was supposed to whip a pass to Battle waiting on the sideline outside the three-point line.
"I kept yelling to our guys 'Notre Dame-Syracuse! Notre Dame-Syracuse!' " said Pitino, mindful of the last-second three-pointer last weekend that gave the Irish a victory. "I said to only play your man. When the ball comes to the middle, don't look to help."
Dennison did not find Battle, and the buzzer sounded before his improvised dribble upcourt could produce a shot.
From the opening tip-off, when Auburn's freshmen backcourt showed it would not crumble under the Rupp Arena spotlight, the game took on a good-to-the- last-shot appearance.
Four times in the first five minutes UK tipped away inbounds passes, part of a 45-deflection afternoon. None of his college teams has had a higher deflection total, Pitino said.
Yet Auburn, which had lost just once this month, hung tough. Battle's shooting -- he finished with 30 points -- and the Tigers' transition game kept it close.
The latter fueled an 8-0 run that gave Auburn a 39-31 first-half lead. Sophomore forward Chris Brandt beat the UK press for one of the baskets, a layup. Seconds later, quicksilver freshman point guard Reggie Gallon dribbled the length of the court for another layup.
"Kentucky's pressure is a double-edged sword," Eagles said. "It causes turnovers (Auburn had 21). But it also gives easy baskets if you keep your composure and attack without being in a hurry."
UK rallied late in the half. Freshman Jeff Brassow hit a three-pointer from the corner off a Feldhaus cross-court pass that appeared to graze the backboard. That shot began a 7-2 run that reduced UK's deficit to 47-46 at halftime.
"That was a momentum swing for us," Pitino said. "If we're down five to seven points, it's a difficult game for us. They can control tempo and we might get overanxious.
"For us, they're very difficult to play because we're better off against big people than quickness. Quickness hurts us. Big people, we can hit them and get to their legs because they're not a moving target. Auburn has outstanding quickness from their backcourt and their three-man (Dennison)."
Derrick Miller, Kentucky's lone senior and the focus of an emotional pregame farewell, made a timely second-half contribution. With Auburn leading 53-48, Miller scored seven points in a 12-0 UK run.
The Cats went on to a 20-4 run that established the first of Kentucky's three 11-point leads, 68-57. UK never led by more.
Miller had two three-pointers in the run, then later added a third that put UK ahead 73-62 at the 12:37 mark.
"We had been so successful in the first half we relaxed a bit," Eagles said of guarding Miller, who had seven first-half points and 20 for the game. "Dennison, the guy guarding Miller, kind of let him get away. That gave him a cushion. You can't do that with Derrick Miller."