Date story was published: Sunday, March 11, 1984
NASHVILLE -- After 35 regular-season titles and 13 tournament crowns, many fans probably thought Kentucky won Southeastern Conference basketball trophies by instinct.
Yesterday the Wildcats won their 14th SEC tournament just that way.
Kenny Walker concluded an improvised play by bouncing in a jumper at the buzzer to give the Wildcats a 51-49 victory over Auburn and the SEC tournament title here.
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Walker's shot, a 14-footer from the right side of the lane, appeared to be both short and to the left of the basket. But it bounced off the front of the rim, rose about a foot over the basket and softly fell through the hoop as the buzzer sounded.
"Maybe it wasn't the prettiest shot in the world," said Walker, the net from the basket hanging around his neck, "but it went in."
Walker's shot, however, was by no means the only unorthodox part of the play that ended a game that mirrored other contests in this tournament: 40 minutes (and sometimes more) of nailbiting.
As it was drawn out in the UK huddle with 14 seconds remaining, Melvin Turpin and Jim Master were supposed to set a double screen for Walker to come around. Beal was supposed to pass to Walker. Then, of course, Walker was supposed to make the shot.
Only the latter occurred.
Auburn's Paul Daniels overplayed Beal and denied the ball.
"We knew what they were going to do and we took them out of what they wanted to do," Auburn Coach Sonny Smith said. "I never thought they'd score . . . but they were good enough to improvise."
In UK's 48-46 semifinal victory over Alabama on Friday night, the Wildcats had used their "one-on-four" play in the final minute. That play had called for four players to stand near the endline and let Beal work one-on-one.
Yesterday, UK opted for what it calls a "Double Stack," a play involving picks (Turpin and Master, usually) and cuts (Walker).
"I've never seen that type of poise," UK Coach Joe Hall said of Master and Beal's role change. "So many times the other team will do what Auburn did (deny the ball to Beal) and everything falls apart. Maybe it comes from them (Beal and Master) being roommates.
"Whatever it was, that was as satisfying as getting the win."
After Beal and Master did their thing, Walker had the hard part. The 6-foot-8 sophomore said he had never before made a game-winner at the buzzer. Only the night before, he had suffered through a one-for-11 effort against Alabama.
Yesterday, behind a quickly constructed screen, Walker concluded a six-for-seven performance from the field.
"I'll trade all those shots I missed last night for the one I made today," he said. "Last night was like a nightmare."
After two night of sweet dreams, Auburn's nightmare came yesterday. All three of the Tigers' games in this tournament were undecided until the final shot was taken. Auburn escaped with a 59-58 victory on Thursday night when Vanderbilt's Al McKinney missed a 20-footer at the buzzer. The Tigers beat Tennessee 60-58 on Friday night when Vol freshman Tony White misfired from about the same spot that Walker launched his game-winner yesterday.
For Auburn, the third time looking into a gun barrel was anything but a charm.
"Ole Sonny's about 61 or 62," joked Auburn Coach Sonny Smith, who is actually 48 years old. "I aged a lot in this tournament."
While he managed to regain his sense of humor about a half-hour after the game, Smith -- and most of his players -- couldn't fight back the tears in the immediate shock of Walker's winning basket.
"I was crying because Coach Dye (Auburn athletic director and football coach Pat Dye) was crying," Smith said. "That was tough."
Charles Barkley, who winked and smiled and mugged his way through the best competition the SEC can offer, sat on the floor and cried like a baby.
"This is the most disappointing athletic moment in my life," Barkley said after needing about 30 minutes to regain his composure. "We played so hard. We didn't deserve to lose. To tell you the truth, neither did Kentucky."
Barkley, who was named the tournament's most valuable player, scored 14 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked two shots. Maybe more importantly, he held UK center Melvin Turpin under his seasonal averages. Turpin got 13 points and five rebounds.
But in the end, the tournament's most colorful and dominating personality was helpless.
"When it bounced off the rim, the buzzer had sounded and you could tell it was going in," Barkley said of Walker's shot. "There was nothing you could do."
Auburn, which fell to 20-9, had its chances earlier.
After the first 35 minutes -- a span in which neither team led by more than four points -- Auburn was clinging to a 49-47 edge and had the ball.
But the Tigers turned it over when Chuck Person, who played 32 minutes despite pulling a tendon in his calf Friday night, stepped on the endline.
The Cats worked patiently against Auburn's 3-2 zone (a defense the Tigers' used almost exclusively) and tied it when Sam Bowie slammed home a lob from Beal. That tied it at 49-49 with 2:29 remaining.
Crucial turnover No. 2 for Auburn came with 1:47 to go.
The Tigers had called timeout at that point, where they set up a halfcourt inbounds play.
Surprisingly, freshman Gerald White tried to hit Person with a crosscourt pass as Person broke toward the basket.
UK's Winston Bennett broke in front of Person and intercepted.
"Yeah, I was surprised they tried that," Bennett said of the Auburn gamble. "They had time to run off the clock."
Smith said Person's break for the hoop was part of Auburn's standard inbounds play from the sideline. In theory -- and practice -- Person's break is supposed to free a man for a short inbounds pass. The Auburn coach said Person had received a pass and scored only once on the play all season.
"We had been a little short of patience at that part of the game," Smith said. "In every huddle we stressed patience, patience, patience."
Then Person faked his man (ironically, it was Walker) and broke for the hoop.
"I thank God for Winston Bennett," Walker said. "My butt would have been chewed out good. I'm going to hug his neck."
That would have to wait. Walker still had a long line of well-wishers wanting to hug his neck.