Date story published: Thursday, January 23, 2003
"We want Heissenbuttel, we want Heissenbuttel," the students chanted. Victory was assured.
His team led by 16 points with barely a minute left in this battle of Southeastern Conference unbeatens. Yet Kentucky point guard Cliff Hawkins hounded Auburn's Derrick Bird into a five-second call.
That unnecessary but telling sequence capped another rewarding night of defense for Kentucky. The kind of trapping, energetic defense that beat Vanderbilt and Notre Dame last week propelled UK to a 67-51 victory over visiting Auburn last night.
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Asked why he bothered to smother Bird into committing the 25th of Auburn's season-high 26 turnovers, Hawkins said, "Just to keep the psyche of the team up and let them know it's not over."
Actually it had been over after the Cats held Auburn without a basket for almost seven minutes midway through the second half. During that stretch, Kentucky went on a 20-3 run to take a 57-41 lead.
But that stretch only served as Act II for Kentucky's defense. In a first half that set the tone for UK's poor shooting and near submission on the boards, the Cats not only hung tough but took a seven-point halftime lead by limiting Auburn to six baskets (just one in the final 13:19).
"Six baskets?" Auburn forward Marco Killingsworth said. "Woooo. I didn't know that."
Kentucky, its 14-3 record matching its best start since 1998-99, focused its defense on Auburn's double-digit scorers: Marquis Daniels and Killingsworth. Daniels needed 14 shots to score 11 points. Killingsworth hurt UK early with low-post muscle, but made only one of his four baskets in the game's final 36:20.
"They took us out of the things we wanted to do," Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis said, "and that's pretty much it. Kentucky's defense and (Gerald) Fitch."
Fitch, who missed all six of his first-half shots (four from three-point range), got hot in the second half. After intermission, he matched his career high of four three-pointers as UK improved to 4-0 in the SEC. That matched the Cats' best league start since the national championship season of 1997-98.
But long after Fitch completed his 15-point second half to finish with a team-high 16, the Hawkins-Bird five-second call served to re-state the message of this game.
"It says the guys take a lot of pride in not letting people score on them," UK Coach Tubby Smith said of Hawkins' good-to-the-last-Auburn-drop defense. "Pride. Just taking some pride in our ability to contain people.
"Cliff is the focal point of our defense. When he's active and tough on the ball, it makes our defense more effective. It makes our post defense more effective. It makes everybody play better."
Auburn, 15-3 overall and 4-1 in the SEC, acknowledged Kentucky's team defense as the difference.
"I'd say with about nine minutes left in the first half, they started pinching me, double-teaming me," said Killingsworth, who had 19 points and seven rebounds.
Ellis noted another factor. "They went to their press," he said, "and I think the press took us away from what we wanted to do."
Auburn struggled to get the ball up court at times and shot 38.1 percent, its third-worst accuracy of the season.
Daniels, whose versatile play loomed large in pre-game hype, drew a rotation of defenders. Chuck Hayes, Keith Bogans, Erik Daniels and Hawkins all got a turn.
"A lot was dictated not necessarily with what we did, but where they put him," Smith said. Marquis Daniels, who had double-doubles against UK the last two seasons, needed 14 shots to score 11 points and matched a career high with seven turnovers.
"They did a good job in the second half getting up in our guards," Marquis Daniels said. "We didn't screen well and that forced us into a lot of one-on-ones. They did a good job getting up in you and containing you without fouling."
This defensive excellence began in the second half at Vanderbilt and showed no signs of abating. Auburn became the fourth straight UK opponent to shoot less than 40 percent.
"This is the best defense we've ever played," Hawkins said. "As long as we play the way we are defensively, I think we'll have a chance to win every game."