NASHVILLE — The inevitability of Kentucky's victory was apparent at tip-off. In the center circle, Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns, All-Southeastern Conference big man and expected lottery pick in this year's NBA Draft, loomed over Auburn's Devin Waddell, walk-on and engineering student.
The stunning pregame news of Auburn suspending Cinmeon Bowers, its only presence around the basket, cast Waddell as wrong-man-at-wrong-place. One of UK's many big men, Willie Cauley-Stein, could not suppress a bemused smile moments before the ball went up. He turned to teammate Andrew Harrison and whispered ... something.
"I'm not going to say what I really said," a smiling Cauley-Stein said after Kentucky went about the formality of crunching Auburn 91-67 Saturday. "Just, 'Wow.' That's what I'll say."
Of course, Kentucky doesn't need a 6-inch height advantage at the opening tap to show superiority. Nor do the Cats need their shortest starters (Aaron and Andrew Harrison) to be taller than the opposition's tallest (Waddell at 6-foot-5). Winning an SEC record 33rd straight game proved that.
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But it doesn't hinder Kentucky from out-defending, outrebounding, out-shooting and outplaying an opponent.
"When you're hitting shots and you're getting stops, you as a group just feel immortal," Cauley-Stein said. "Where you know you're not going to get beat.
"So, now, it's like we can really do anything. We know you can throw up something stupid and if it goes in ... you look good. If it doesn't, you know you'll get a stop at the other end. It's like a reassurance."
In a statement, Auburn said Coach Bruce Pearl became aware after Friday's upset victory over LSU of a "potential rule violation" involving Bowers. The Tigers already knew they'd be without another starting front-liner, Jordon Granger, who could not play after throwing a punch at LSU's Jordan Mickey in Friday's game.
Kentucky's rush to Sunday's SEC Tournament finals was a testament to predictability and, for anyone wanting their basketball spiced with drama, an argument for no shot clock.
Five UK players scored in double digits. Cauley-Stein led the way with 18. Andrew Harrison added 15, and Trey Lyles, Aaron Harrison and Devin Booker each had 12.
Kentucky's defense shut down Auburn guard KT Harrell, a second-team All-SEC selection whose 24.3-point scoring average in the three victories here brought the Tigers into a game against UK. His only basket — on a heavily contested drive — came at the 17:48 mark of the second half. He made one of 12 shots and finished with 13 points.
Cauley-Stein guarded Harrell.
"For a 7-footer to defend a guard like that, it's remarkable," Booker said.
Kentucky's 47-29 halftime lead suggested a relatively competitive first 20 minutes. It was more competitive than the first half when the teams played in Lexington last month. On that night, UK took leads of 23-2 and 30-4 before settling on a 52-26 cushion at intermission.
The game's first basket — a floater by Malcolm Canada — gave Auburn its only lead 33 seconds after Towns controlled the opening tap. In Rupp Arena, Auburn didn't actually put the ball into the basket until the 11:21 mark (its one earlier basket scored on a UK goaltend).
Auburn met its hope of watching Kentucky shoot from the perimeter. UK had "only" a 28-18 advantage in points from the paint, a big decrease from the season-high 62 that buried Auburn last month. But UK's good shooting (7-for-14 from three-point range) made that irrelevant.
Cauley-Stein made seven of nine shots after making just two of nine in Friday's victory over Florida.
"Today, I was going to the basket instead of fading away or trying to get fouled," he said. "Yesterday, I was tentative. Today, I knew what I was doing. I knew what I'm about to do with the ball."
It was a feeling Kentucky players have enjoyed many times this season. On the eve of Selection Sunday, they are keenly aware that the expiration date on this good feeling is fast approaching.
Cauley-Stein seemed to ponder that reality as he sat flushed in victory in the UK locker room. "I wish we could play another 30-some games," he said.