Date story published: Thursday, January 21, 1999
Rupp Arena continued to be a place where unbeaten records go to die.
Like Maryland in December, Auburn saw its unbeaten record (but not its worthiness as one of the nation's better teams) ended by Kentucky last night.
A revived senior Heshimu Evans and career-high scoring from freshman Desmond Allison helped UK defeat Auburn 72-62.
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Kentucky's pride when facing a challenge from another higher ranked, unbeaten opponent played a key role, too.
"A lot of people coming in thought they'd win it," UK senior Scott Padgett said. "There was talk of a changing of the guard in the SEC. What we've always thought is till the season's over, we're still SEC champs."
Asked why Maryland and then Auburn brought doubts about Kentucky, Padgett looked reporters in the eye and said with a smile, "You guys just don't listen."
Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith saluted his team's ability to meet another strong challenge.
"We beat a very good team," he said. "Auburn kept their composure extremely well because I thought at times we could pull away.
"But I've got to compliment our guys. They came ready to play. They came focused. And everybody raised their game. Our guys rose to the challenge and showed a lot of heart and hustle."
Kentucky improved to 16-4 overall and tied Auburn for the lead in the Southeastern Conference at 5-1.
Afterward, Smith couldn't resist wondering aloud what UK's record might be if the Cats played with similar passion in losses to Pittsburgh, Duke, Louisville and Tennessee.
"If we played with that type of energy, we would have won those games," he said. "I'll tell you that, right now."
Auburn, which shot a season-low 33.8 percent and scored a season-low 62 points, fell to 17-1.
Evans, who had made only three of 24 three-point shots since the Maryland game, hit three treys en route to a 20-point effort. He had scored only 20 points in the most recent four games combined and had scored double-figure points only once since the Maryland game.
The UK camp fell on the cliche that hitting his first shot (a three-pointer 20 seconds into the game) got Evans going. But "Mu" saw making his second shot - a trey at the 17:54 mark - as bigger.
"I looked one way, then the other and then I just shot the ball," he said. "To tell you the truth, I didn't think that ball was going to go in. I didn't square up. I just shot it."
Evans returned to the all-around production that once had UK tabbing him as an All-America candidate. His nine rebounds helped the Cats gain a 40-38 advantage on the boards. Auburn came into the game ranked No. 1 nationally with a plus 12.3-rebound margin.
Evans said his performance felt good. "For sure," he said. "You all know I've been in a slump. I've been trying to stay positive. I think I have. But I'm not one to single myself out. It's not me-me-me."
Allison surpassed his previous career high in the first half. In fact, all 10 of his points came in the first 20 minutes.
Auburn saw two of its leaders struggle . Point guard Doc Robinson, the SEC leader in assists, played despite running a 102-degree temperature Monday. Averaging 11.4 points in SEC play, he was not 100 percent and didn't score until the final minute.
And Auburn star Chris Porter, who averages a double-double in SEC play, suffered through a six-for-19 shooting performance. He finished with 16 hard-earned points and 10 rebounds.
For a second straight game, Smith credited a zone for containing the opposition's main scoring threat.
"When you're trying to contain a guy, the zone allows you to have two guys around that guy," Smith said. "We always had someone challenge his shot. I don't think he had an open shot. Even when he dunked, we challenged those."
Surprisingly good shooting and expected good defense enabled Kentucky to take control in the first half. The Cats had made only five treys in the last two games, but they made seven in the first half.
Kentucky's tried and True Blue defense - a mix of man-to-man and zone - limited Auburn to 62 points . The Tigers, who beat Brigham Young 62-43 in November, entered the game ranked 11th nationally in scoring (83.7-point average).
Kentucky, which shot 54.5 percent in the half, hardly could have gotten off to a more encouraging start offensively. Evans hit two three-pointers in the first 2:06. That was one less than he had in the previous nine games.
Thanks to a 9-2 mini run in the final four minutes of the half, Kentucky had a nine-point lead at intermission.
Kentucky opened the second half in a man-to-man defense. But the Cats switched to the zone barely a minute into the half.
With Porter continuing to miss, Auburn fell farther behind. He missed four of his first five shots.
Meanwhile, Kentucky steadily built its lead. Wayne Turner's stop and pop along the left baseline gave the Cats their largest lead, 42-27, with 15:11 left.
Auburn did not quit. The Tigers closed within 46-37 mid-way through the half.
But Evans answered. He beat Mamadou N'diaye to a rebound and scored while being fouled. The three-point play gave the Cats a 49-37 lead.
When Auburn got within 49-39, Evans countered again. He hit a three-pointer.
The game got tense down the stretch. Kentucky made only three of a possible 10 free throws in one stretch. And Auburn closed to within 62-56 with almost three minutes left.
But Smith said he didn't fret.
"I felt we were in control of the game the entire way," he said.