Date story published: Thursday, February 26, 1998
AUBURN, Ala. - Kentucky may not have an All-American. Kentucky might not have an all-conference player.
But UK has another Southeastern Conference basketball championship to cram into a trophy case already straining to contain its metallic cargo.
Despite being in a transition year and lacking a marquee talent, Kentucky won its 39th SEC regular-season title 83-58 over Auburn last night.
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As if to remind its hard-to-satisfy fans of the modus operandi this season, Kentucky clinched this title the Kentucky way. The Cats used their versatility and arguably the league's deepest bench to subdue an Auburn team down to seven scholarship players.
After the victory, the Cats couldn't help but savor a championship that many outside the program doubted could be won.
"This is the team not any good at 25-4," reminded forward Scott Padgett, who scored 19 points .
"It feels real good," said Nazr Mohammed, who enjoyed a title that came on a night he managed just one basket. Then he, too, directed a pointed comment at reporters. "A lot of you guys didn't think we could do it," he said matter-of-factly.
UK Coach Tubby Smith declined several invitations to fire back at those who grumbled about close games, surprising homecourt defeats and the lack of breath-taking acrobatics. "They must be calling you guys," he told reporters. "That's not what's being said to me.
"It's pretty exciting. I'm happy. I'm pleased. This was one of our goals, to win the regular-season championship."
And, yes, the first-year UK coach said, he considered that a realistic goal when the players reported for practice in mid-October.
"I thought so or we wouldn't have set that goal," Smith said.
Now 25-4 overall and 13-2 in the SEC, Kentucky made its calling card a one-for-all approach this season. That kept Smith pushing his many buttons until finding the right combination in any particular game.
Self-effacing guard Jeff Sheppard came up big in this game. Often matched against skinny freshman Scott Pohlman, Sheppard scored a career-high 25 points. Not that you would know it from his body language in the locker room after the game. He sat quietly against the wall farthest from the door giving reporters entry. He gazed downward.
"It's fine," he said of his performance. Then he added, "You're only as good as what your team does for you. I just happened to be the guy."
Smith credited Sheppard for setting Kentucky on the course to victory. Sheppard stole a pass on the game's first possession and sprinted to a dunk that produced a lead UK did not relinquish.
"I thought we were pretty focused, especially from a defensive standpoint," Smith said. "The guys showed up and challenged every pass and shot.
"It started with Jeff Sheppard. He sort of set the tempo for us. That's something we've been trying to get Jeff to do."
Sheppard explained Smith's calls for setting a tone as a prod to do little things that don't show up in a box score (boxing out, making a deflection, etc.) rather than scoring.
But Sheppard scored, too. He had career highs in baskets (10) and points as well as equaling a career high of five three-pointers.
Sheppard passed his previous high of 21 with 7:27 left. The shot deserved inclusion on any season highlight video. Somehow, he banked in a left-handed shot over Auburn 7-footer Mamadou N'diaye.
Even Sheppard dropped the aw-shucks on that one. "I was excited about that," he said with a gleam in his eye. "I knew he was there. I just said I'll challenge him."
Auburn, which fell to 15-11 overall and 7-8 in the league, feared UK's depth. And the Tigers, who saw their NCAA Tournament hopes dimmed, were right.
Smith kept fresh players in the game. Only freshman Ryan Hogan and sophomore Steve Masiello did not play in the first half as Smith made 23 substitutions in the first 20 minutes. Included in the comings and goings were a five-man mass substitution and a subbing with three-tenths of a second left. In the latter, Padgett replaced Allen Edwards, presumably because Edwards had just picked up his second foul.
"I knew if we could push the ball upcourt, (we could) wear them down," Smith said. "I think the fatigue factor took over. We had much more manpower and firepower."
That's how it looked to Auburn. The Tigers shot only 31.4 percent (28.6 percent in the second half).
From Auburn's perspective, Kentucky's looked like champions despite the lack of a single superior player night in and night out.
"We were outmanned," Auburn's lone senior, Franklin Williams, said. "It seemed like we were playing against 100 players."