Date story published: Sunday, March 7, 1999
ATLANTA - Maybe Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis couldn't stand watching helplessly as his team flailed away at Kentucky's impenetrable defense.
As a missed shot ricocheted toward the Auburn bench, Ellis flicked out a hand in an attempt to discreetly tip the ball to a Tiger for a fresh chance to score.
It didn't work. The play was whistled as dead as Auburn's high-charged offense this day.
Adding new meaning to the term defending national champions, Kentucky and its stifling defense beat No. 4 Auburn 69-57 yesterday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals.
"That was probably our best defensive game of the year," UK forward Scott Padgett said.
Undeniably, it was Auburn's worst offensive performance. The Tigers, who came into the tournament with the nation's ninth most productive offense (82.3 ppg), had a season-low point total and shot a season-low 30 percent.
Kentucky (24-8) plays Arkansas today in the SEC Tournament championship game. Auburn (27-3) bused two hours to get home to await today's NCAA Tournament pairings announcement.
Interestingly, Auburn's previous lows for points and shooting accuracy also came against UK. The Cats held Auburn to 62 points and 33.8 percent shooting in the regular season.
Auburn forward Chris Porter, the SEC Player of the Year, struggled to make four of 11 shots and score 12 points. In two games against the Cats, he made only 10 of 30 shots.
explosively athletic Porter.
"If you don't put a body on him, you're going to be on SportsCenter" as highlight fodder, Padgett said. "He plays off the rim. So I think everybody especially him.
force him a little farther out off the post. In zone, we tried to keep it out of the middle because he's really good when he gets the ball in the middle of the lane."
averaging 19.9 three-point shots, put up a season-high 30.
"We match up really well with them," UK center Mike Bradley said. "We're able to box them out rather than like other teams in the SEC (that) they can dominate on the boards."
Although Auburn sought to avenge the regular-season loss, Kentucky began the game with driven determination. The Cats hit their first three three-point shots, roared to a 26-9 lead in the first 11 minutes and never trailed.
"They just froze," UK point guard Wayne Turner said. "I don't think they expected us to jump on them like we did. I think they were a little shocked."
Auburn made only three of its first 19 shots. UK's defense forced Ellis to bench Pohlman, the team's top three-point threat. Pohlman, a slight stand-still set shooter, simply couldn't get off his shot against UK's mix of man-to-man and zone defenses.
"It was paramount, critical that we have a good start," UK Coach Tubby Smith said. "Anytime you play, it's harder to play from behind in tournaments. The pressure just continues to build. If you get off to a quick start and establish your defensive presence, then that leads to offense."
Kentucky's sporadic offense helped Auburn mount a second-half charge. UK made only 40.7 percent of its shots and barely half its free throws (14 of 27).
So even though Auburn missed 13 of its first 17 second-half shots, the Tigers got as close as 48-42 on Porter's fast-break dunk with 8:53 left.
Then fate intervened.
With two seconds on the shot clock, freshman Tayshaun Prince rushed up a three-point shot from the right side.
"I knew it was going to hit glass," he said. "But I didn't know what direction it was going to go. In (the basket) or back to me."
The ball banked in to deal Auburn a staggering psychological blow.
"You can see their whole bench up and cheering, then it's one of these," Padgett said as he slumped his shoulders and sagged back into his locker room seat.
Auburn point guard Doc Robinson countered with a three. Then UK got another improbable shot from another freshman. After nearly bobbling the ball away, Desmond Allison flipped up a 14-footer in the lane. The shot clock expired as the ball found its way inside the basket.
"They had the ball, to tell you the truth," Allison said of his bobble. He got it back because "I just wanted it more."
Although good fortune played a part in halting Auburn's comeback, Ellis did not curse outrageous fortune. Instead, he praised UK's superiority this day, especially on defense.
"If it was a boxing match, they still win," the Auburn coach said. "It would have been nice if he missed the bank and we go down and hit a three and cut it to three. But it didn't happen."