The regular season may have been disappointing by Kentucky's lofty standards. Still, don't count out the defending national champions just yet.
The No. 14 Wildcats moved within one victory of another Southeastern Conference tournament title, jumping out to an early lead against No. 4 Auburn and cruising to a 69-57 victory in the semifinals Saturday.
The Tigers, who won their first regular-season championship since 1960, were clearly out of their element against the Wildcats, who have won two straight tournament titles and six of the last seven.
"Our guys have been here before," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "There's not a lot you can do coaching-wise at this point. It's all about reaching inside. The heart and competitiveness we showed today goes pretty deep. The pride in wearing that Kentucky uniform carries a lot of weight."
The burden was too much to bear for the cold-shooting Tigers (27-3), who lost to Kentucky for the second time this season. Auburn fell into a double-digit hole less than six minutes into the game and never recovered.
Shooting only 30 percent (21 of 70) from the field, the Tigers trailed by 10 or more points through most of the game and may have cost themselves a top seed in the NCAA tournament.
"It was very simple," coach Cliff Ellis said. "They hit more shots than we did."
Kentucky (24-8), which had its most regular-season losses since the 1989-90 season, advanced to the Sunday final against No. 22 Arkansas or Mississippi State.
"We felt like we had a lot to prove in this game" said Scott Padgett, who scored 13 points and did a superb defensive job on Auburn star Chris Porter. "A lot of people have written us off. They say we're not the entucky of past years. Obviously, we didn't have the regular season we wanted to. But I still feel like this team will do a lot in the (NCAA) tournament. Our goal is to win another national championship."
The Wildcats set the tone against Auburn from the opening tip, hitting their first three attempts from outside the 3-point arc and building a 17-6 lead when Heshimu Evans scored on a fast-break layup with 14:25 remaining in the first half.
Though Kentucky made only 4 of 17 attempts from 3-point range the rest of the way, it didn't matter. The Wildcats have won 22 of 23 tournament games, including eight in a row, while Auburn stumbled in its first semifinal appearance since 1991.
The Tigers missed 17 of their first 20 shots and fell behind 26-9 when freshman Desmond Allison connected on his second 3-pointer just past the midway point in the half.
"We just couldn't get over the hump," Ellis said. "Today, it belonged to Kentucky. I think they'll go a long way. I think we will, too."
The only thing that kept the game from turning into a total blowout was Kentucky's poor shooting from the free-throw line. The Wildcats missed 10-of-15 before making 9-of-12 down the stretch to secure the victory.
After the opening minutes, Auburn got as close as six points on two occasions, the last coming when Doc Robinson's 3-pointer sliced Kentucky's lead to 51-45 with 7:01 remaining.
But Allison hit a hanging jumper in the lane as the shot clocked ran out, Michael Bradley scored on a drive and Jamal Magloire put back a miss by Wayne Turner to push the margin back to 57-46. Kentucky led by at least 10 the rest of the way for its 14th consecutive victory over Auburn since 1990.
"We're showing signs of being a great team," Magloire said. "I always said we were a good team, but if we play defense we have the potential to be a great team. We showed that today."
The Wildcats won 72-62 in Lexington during the regular season after Auburn started out with 17 consecutive victories.
Five players scored in double figures for Kentucky, led by Turner and Padgett with 13 apiece. Turner, who had a career-high 24 points in the quarterfinals, also had seven assists and four rebounds.
Doc Robinson and Jay Heard paced the Tigers with 14 points each.
Porter, the SEC player of the year, was shadowed by Padgett and double-teamed much of the game. The Auburn forward was held to 12 points on 4-of-11 shooting and managed just two offensive rebounds.
"We tried to put a body on him every time a shot went up," Padgett said. "If you don't do that, you're going to wind up watching him on SportsCenter."
Kentucky improved to 12-0 at Georgia Dome, which has become the next best thing to Rupp Arena for the Wildcats.
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