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Date story published: Sunday, March 16, 2003

NEW ORLEANS -- A theory on how to beat Kentucky has emerged at the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Going into today's championship game, practitioners of said theory remained to be discovered.

In yesterday's semifinals, Auburn certainly did not have the supposed necessary ingredients -- a strong low-post presence and unflappable guards who can penetrate a defense. Kentucky used a typically dominating stretch, in this case the first 12 minutes of the second half, to snuff Auburn 78-58.

The victory, which extended the nation's longest winning streak to 22 games, advanced UK to an opponent that should test the Cat-killer methodology.

All-league center Mario Austin qualifies as a strong low-post presence that can force double-downs, thus creating open shots.

As for guard play, senior Derrick Zimmerman flirted with a triple-double in State's 76-61 semifinal victory over LSU: nine points, nine rebounds and 11 assists.

His running mate, junior Timmy Bowers, made six three-pointers en route to a career-high 26 points against LSU.

"I don't know if we can beat them because I've never done it," Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury said of Kentucky. "But those elements are important and I think we have those things."

UK, now 28-3 overall and zeroing in on the program's first No. 1 ranking going into the NCAA Tournament since 1978, expects a strong challenge from Mississippi State.

"They're going to come at us," forward Chuck Hayes said. "They won't back down."

Hayes acknowledged the importance of containing Austin, who scored 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds in Kentucky's 70-62 victory over State last month.

"There's more to their team than him," Hayes said, "but he's the backbone to their team."

Besides scoring and rebounding, a strong low-post presence could also get UK center Marquis Estill in foul trouble, a goal of all opposing teams.

Stansbury was coy when asked about Austin drawing fouls from Estill. "We're going to throw it to him," the State coach said of Austin. "I'll tell you that."

Zimmerman and Bowers have UK's attention.

Gerald Fitch, who probably will guard Zimmerman to start the game, said of the assignment: "He's a complete point guard. He can do some of everything. He's not one- or two-dimensional. That makes him special."

Added Keith Bogans of Bowers, who needs two three-pointers to move into sixth place on State's career list: "Great dead-on-the-catch shooter. If you don't have a hand in his face, he can knock down shots. I'll have my hands full."

Kentucky had its hands full with Auburn for a half. Auburn (20-11) held its own on the boards, sprung a box-and-one defense on the Cats and eased into a 36-36 halftime tie.

"Auburn caught us off-guard," Fitch said of the box-and-one. "We got mixed up with what offense to run. At that point, we were thinking offense first, causing a lot of distraction for us.

"We knew what Coach (Tubby Smith) was going to say (at halftime). We could probably have told him."

Forget the offense. Allow the scoring to flow from defense and rebounding.

Kentucky delivered on both in the second half. Auburn did not have a rebound -- off either backboard -- in the first nine minutes of the second half. UK enjoyed -- and "enjoyed" was the correct term -- a 24-11 rebounding edge in the second half.

"Rebounding was the major factor in them getting the lead," Auburn Coach Cliff Ellis said. "Once the door opens, they don't let you get back in."

The Cats either pounded away for second- and third-chance opportunities or limited Auburn to one shot per trip downcourt. By contrast, Kentucky scored on 12 of its first 13 trips downcourt after halftime.

"We stepped it up on defense," said Erik Daniels, who sustained no significant damage from a nasty first-half fall. "Usually when we step it up on defense, everything picks up: offense, offensive rebounding. We just pick it up."

Kentucky outscored Auburn 32-11 in the first 11 minutes of the second half. As for UK exhibiting no letup, Auburn became the 16th opponent in the last 18 games to never lead in the second half, and the 10th to fail to reduce its deficit to single digits.

Now comes Mississippi State to try to buck that trend and prove the how-to-beat-Kentucky theory correct.