Date story published: Saturday, March 8, 1997
MEMPHIS - Kentucky routed Auburn 92-50 and picked up Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis' qualified endorsement last night as the team to beat in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. But - and there seemingly has been a "but" interrupting UK's momentum all season - the Cats suffered yet another setback.
Allen Edwards aggravated a sore back early in the game. That left his status in doubt as Kentucky looks to become what Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis swore he saw: the 1997 SEC Tournament champion.
"No question Kentucky was primed and ready," Ellis said after UK posted the largest margin of victory against an Auburn team since a 119-76 victory in 1975. "I think it's the best I've seen them play either in person or on television."
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As he congratulated UK Coach Rick Pitino in the traditional post-game handshake, Ellis told him just how impressed he was. "I told Rick if they play like they did tonight, they're going to win (the SEC Tournament)," Ellis said. "And win big."
Pitino was not so sure, especially after Edwards played just five minutes.
"We won the battle, but the war gets difficult because now we're thin," Pitino said.
Edwards apparently strained his back in practice this week. Pitino was not sure exactly how. Then early in the game, Edwards begged out. "I can't go," he told Pitino. "My back is killing me."
UK's team physician, Dr. David Caborn, said Edwards might be able to play today if necessary. The Cats will play Ole Miss, which defeated Vanderbilt 64-62 in another second-round game.
"Well, we can win the tournament, certainly, if we play this way," Pitino said of Ellis' qualified endorsement. "We didn't have a problem with a lack of depth and foul trouble."
But Ole Miss plays a pressure man-to-man defense that will put a premium on ball-handling. After Anthony Epps, the Cats may have to go with former walk-on Cameron Mills and present walk-on Stephen Masiello as its backup guards.
Thanks in part to an SEC Tournament record 56 rebounds, Kentucky did not need Edwards against Auburn. The Cats enjoyed a 56-36 rebounding advantage. That fed a 23-8 edge in second-chance points. Throw in a devastating press - UK enjoyed a 33-5 advantage in points off turnovers -and it's easy to understand why Kentucky led from start to finish en route to the second biggest margin of victory since the SEC Tournament was revived in 1979.
Kentucky improved its record to 28-4. Auburn fell to 16-15.
Kentucky's highest scoring first half in more than two months showed how pepped up the Cats were. The high energy level propelled UK to a 47-25 lead. UK had not scored that many points since rolling up a 48-26 halftime lead against UNC-Asheville Dec. 23.
"I've liked our energy all season," Pitino said. "(But) I told the team in order for us to win, it can't just be great. It has to be extraordinary."
The Cats wasted little time getting started. New starter Jared Prickett intercepted Auburn center Pat Burke's tap and lobbed a pass to Ron Mercer for a dunk. Bingo! The Cats led 2-0 three seconds into the game.
"Right from the jump ball to the last horn, everything was clicking for them," Burke said.
Kentucky used the three-point shot to loosen up Auburn. UK's five first-half treys - as many as the Cats had made in nine games this season - came inside the first 12 minutes. That kept UK in the lead early, and set up a blowout.
After the fifth trey - a swisher by Mills - the Cats began working inside. UK's final seven baskets of the half came inside the lane. Those high-percentage shots combined with a high-intensity pressure defense helped Kentucky go on a 20-3 run. That gave UK a 39-19 lead.
Kentucky's lead grew to as much as 24 points late in the half thanks to a Mercer dunk that provided a book end to his game-opening slam. That lead matched UK's margin of victory in the teams' regular-season game.
Nothing early in the second half suggested an Auburn comeback. Kentucky's press continued to harass Auburn. The Cats widened the lead to 58-32 at the first TV timeout of the second half, the 15:31 mark.
The only disquieting moment came with 15:42 left when Mills tried to take a charge in transition. Auburn's Adrian Chilliest, who had 2 inches and 34 pounds on Mills, literally knocked the UK player out of his right shoe. Mills needed help to the bench. Apparently no damage was done. He returned with 12:55 left.
Walk-on Masiello replaced Mills and stayed in the game. Kentucky's lead continued to widen. Nine straight points by Mercer - seven coming in a 65-second blur - expanded the lead to 65-34 with 13:42 left.