Date story published: Wednesday, February 28, 1996
AUBURN, Ala. -- There's trouble in Basketball City. Well, trouble by Kentucky standards. The Cats beat Auburn by "only" 15 points last night.
"Everybody's due for an off night," UK Coach Rick Pitino said of the 88-73 victory over Auburn.
"Our press wasn't good at all," Walter McCarty said.
"We're playing poorly right now," Mark Pope added.
With some prodding, Pitino put Kentucky's off night in perspective. Lesser teams actually lose on off nights.
"We're a hell of a basketball team," the UK coach said. "That's why we're the No. 1 team in the country. We have great players."
But Pitino cautioned against dismissing the importance of Kentucky's subpar performance. He stressed the inadequacy of UK's defense.
"Tonight we had to outscore the opponent," he said. "We did. (But) if we play that type defense against a top 20 or 25 team, we go down tonight."
Kentucky extended its winning streak to 24 games, the second-longest single-season streak in school history. Only the unbeaten team of 1953-54 (25-0) won more consecutive games in one season.
The Cats improved to 25-1 overall and 15-0 in the Southeastern Conference. UK need only win Saturday at home against Vanderbilt -- a team the Cats drubbed by 39 points in Nashville on Feb. 7 -- to post the league's first unbeaten record since 1955-56.
Auburn, which played Kentucky competitively for a half, fell to 18-10 overall and 6-9 in the SEC. The loss probably killed the Tigers' chances of gaining an NCAA Tournament berth. But in another reflection of basketball perspective, Auburn rejoiced in merely playing Kentucky relatively close. The victory lowered UK's average margin of victory on the SEC road this season to 26.1 points.
Moral victory? "Yeah," leading scorer Lance Weems said. "We showed them when they come in here, they're going to be in for a fight. That was our goal."
Two former Auburn players, Keenan Carpenter and Miles Patrick, gave the Tigers a pre-game pep talk. Message: "No matter how good a team is, it's all mental and how much heart you have," Weems said.
Auburn threw an emotional haymaker at Kentucky at the start of the game. Kentucky absorbed the blow, then used its depth to wear down the Tigers.
Senior Night and the "Cliff Dwellers," a group of orange-clad students sitting behind one baseline, gave Auburn additional shots of emotion. No doubt that contributed to the first seven minutes belonging to Auburn.
As has been the trend of UK opponents much of the second half of the season, the Tigers tried to slow the tempo of the game. They milked the clock and spread the floor. That allowed super quick point guard Wes Flanigan, who wore his white socks at knee length, circa 1970, to make repeated drives to the basket.
Kentucky did not press early because the Cats did not want to yield open three-point shots in transition. UK made Auburn play without its most potent weapon much of the half. Auburn, which equaled a school record with 37 three- point shots earlier this season, got off only six three-point shots. The Tigers made two.
But the slower tempo forced the Cats to begin pressing about five minutes into the game. At that point, Auburn was full of confidence and still fresh. The Tigers ripped through the press for three straight dunks -- all by junior center Pat Burke.
The first Burke dunk gave Auburn its largest lead, 12-5, with 15:11 left. After the second, which came 35 seconds later, Burke held up two fingers to the Kentucky bench as if to say he was keeping count.
Gradually, Kentucky's press began to take its toll in turnovers and causing fatigue.
Auburn had only two turnovers in the first eight minutes. But the Tigers committed 10 more before the end of the half. Several suggested fatigue was setting in. During one telling stretch of four straight turnovers, the Tigers threw a lob well short of its intended recipient, had two uncontested passes slip through the receiver's hands and had Weems charge trying to get through a half-court trap.
Reserve guard Jeff Sheppard led Kentucky's rally. He scored a team-high nine points in the half and finished with 11.
After an early 3-2 lead, the Cats did not lead again until Anthony Epps hit a three-pointer with 8:04 left. It gave UK a 24-21 lead.
A three-pointer by Sheppard with four seconds left gave Kentucky it's nine- point halftime cushion. It marked only the fifth time in 15 SEC games that the Cats did not lead by double digits after 20 minutes.
Kentucky put Auburn in a 14-point hole early in the second half. Antoine Walker's jumper at the 19:45 mark gave UK its first double-digit lead, 43-32. Walker made only four of 15 shots.
Epps' three-pointer extended Kentucky's lead to 50-36. That prompted an Auburn timeout with 15:48 left.
The Tigers got no closer than 10 thereafter.