Auburn led much of the first half and went into intermission tied with the Wildcats at 36-36, but Kentucky hurt the Tigers with a second-half full court press, some three-point bombs and good halfcourt defense. Auburn had no answer for that and lost the chance to pull the big upset.
Now it is time for the Tigers to sweat out Selection Sunday, waiting to see if they will be one of the 65 teams to make the 2003 NCAA Tournament field. "I think we are all going to be a little anxious waiting," said senior guard Derrick Bird. "Hopefully, we will be in. I think we are confident we are in, but it is something that we don't have any control over."
The SEC's automatic berth into the tournament will go to the winner of Sunday's noon showdown between Mississippi State, a 76-61 winner over LSU, and the now 28-3 Wildcats. It is a rematch of a previous SEC Tournament at the Superdome in 1996 won by Mississippi State.
Auburn kept the crowd of 21,427, which was dominated by UK fans, subdued much of the first half. Bird said the Tigers followed their game plan well. "We rebounded well and we played well together," he said. "We defended well, too. In the second half, they got away with too many rebounds and that really hurt us."
Kentucky's 43-29 rebounding edge included a plus 13 advantage in the second half. The Wildcats also held Auburn to 33.3 percent shooting in the second half while warming up to hit 53.6 percent themselves to finish at 49.2 percent for the game.
"Overall, Kentucky is the best team we have played this year," said junior center Kyle Davis. "The are a good inside team and a good outside team. They are very strong and they hit the boards hard."
Davis didn't add that the Cats play with a lot of poise, but their coach did. In fact, Tubby Smith said this year's UK team is the most mature, focused group he has been around. "This team is able to do that (stay focused) better than any team I have coached," Smith said.
Smith also said he liked the Auburn team, which dropped to 20-11 and challenged the Wildcats in both meetings before UK pulled away in the second half in both meetings. "Coach Cliff Ellis and his team are very deserving of an NCAA bid."
Ellis said again that he believes the Tigers have played their way into the tournament, but added, "This team has done its job, but I don't sit on the committee. I think it would be a disappointment not to get in."
The Auburn coached said he thought his team controlled the tempo and limited Kentucky to one shot much of the first half after getting off to a slow rebounding start. "Offensively, we were getting the basketball inside," he said.
At halftime, the score was tied because the Tigers had just six turnovers while matching UK on the boards. Auburn also hit 10-12 free throws in the first 20 minutes while UK hit just 5-7 and 1-11 three-pointers. UK hit five three-pointers in the second half while Auburn made just one.
Kentucky star Keith Bogans, who scored 13 points, said a big part of the second half UK explosion was his defense on Auburn's Marquis Daniels. He asked for the defensive assignment on the senior forward, who scored four points in the second half after getting a dozen in the first half. UK's Erik Daniels, who led all UK scorers with 17 points, said Bogans' defensive effort energized the whole Kentucky team.
"We felt like transition and the boards were the biggest key," Ellis said of his team's game plan. "I asked our team what they thought were the two most important factors and transition and boards were the first two things that came out of their mouths. Offensively, taking care of the ball. Those are the things you have to do against this Kentucky team."
Brandon Robinson was the game's leading scorer with 19 points off the bench for the Tigers. He hit 8-13 shots and added a team-high nine rebounds.
Now the Tigers must wait until Sunday to find out if they will be an at-large selection to the NCAA Tournament. The Tigers are hoping for their eighth bid to the event. In their last appearance three seasons ago, the Tigers defeated Creighton and were eliminated by Iowa State. The Tigers are 10-7 all-time in NCAA play with the deepest run a trip to the Elite Eight in 1986 with a team that featured Chuck Person, Gerald White, Jeff Moore and Frank Ford.
Tournament Notes: Kentucky improved its all-time record vs. Auburn to 77-17. The Wildcats have won 14 of the 16 games played at neutral courts...Auburn's all-time record in games played in New Orleans is 21-20 and 2-2 all-time in SEC Tournament games played in The Big Easy. AU's record in the Louisiana Superdome is now 3-5...Former Auburn standout Bill Alexander is being honored at the tournament as part of the league's SEC Legends program. Alexander averaged 13.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game from 1968-71...Kentucky has now won 22 straight games is likely to be the top seed for the NCAA Tournament. UK hasn't lost since falling 81-63 at Louisville on Dec. 28th...Saturday's game was the fourth meeting for the Tigers with a team ranked in the Top 10 nationally. The first meeting was a 77-68 victory over Alabama, the second was a 67-51 loss to Kentucky and the other was a 73-70 setback vs. Florida...Marquis Daniels moved up to ninth on the all-time Auburn scoring list while in New Orleans, passing guard Scott Pohlman (1997-2001), who scored 1,442 points. Daniels has scored 1,460 points. Number eight on the list is center Jeff Moore (1984-88), who scored 1,549. Daniels has 71 steals as a senior, matching his school single season record set as a sophomore. He was named SEC Player of the Year for 2002-2003 by The Birmingham News. Also in New Orleans, junior Kyle Davis moved into fourth place in SEC history for career blocked shots. He has 276. Robert Horry of Alabama (1989-92) with 285 is third. Shaquille O'Neal (1990-92) of LSU holds the record with 412.