When Kentucky coach Tubby Smith asked Jeff Sheppard to take his game up a level, he wasn't expecting this.
Sheppard, a senior guard, finished with a career-high 25 points Wednesday night to help No. 7 Kentucky clinch the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division with an 83-58 victory over Auburn.
"When a coach asks you to step it up, he doesn't necessarily mean he just wants you to hit shots," Sheppard said. "That's part of it, but I felt it meant he wanted more of the little things, like playing harder on defense, blocking out and setting picks."
Shooting 10-for-19 and tying a career record with five 3-pointers doesn't hurt.
And by doing it against Auburn, Sheppard helped the Wildcats (25-4, 13-2) improve to 10-0 on the road and finish with the best overall record in the SEC for the 39th time, thanks also to Mississippi's 81-65 win over Arkansas.
Smith said Sheppard's improvement has started on defense, an area where he has frequently pushed the shooting guard to step up his game.
"I think he's tried to do it," Smith said. "He's feeling his way around. It's more or less understanding our defensive philosophy as far as where he can get deflections and steals. He's gotten better defensively and that gives him more confidence."
Scott Padgett added 19 points for Kentucky on 8-for-9 shooting. He and Sheppard combined for their team's most deadly stretches of the night.
With Kentucky leading 21-15 midway through the first half, the two scored eight straight points for a 29-15 lead. Kentucky's lead never slipped below 11 after that.
Later, they scored all the points in an 11-4 run that gave the Wildcats a 70-47 lead, capped by Sheppard's 3-pointer with 5:46 left.
"The key was the fact that Sheppard and Padgett, they hit the 3s and gave them momentum shots," Auburn coach Cliff Ellis said. "And we couldn't answer. We never could get on a run scoring."
Auburn (15-11, 7-8) came in needing an upset to keep its faint NCAA tournament hopes alive. But the Tigers never had much of a chance, playing with just seven scholarship players due to last week's indefinite suspensions of Randy Hughes and Derek Caldwell for violating team rules.
Doc Robinson led Auburn with 15 points, including several playground moves that led to open shots, but he was the only effective weapon for the Tigers.
Auburn's leading scorer, Bryant Smith, played with a sore right ankle, and finished with five points, all on free throws. Auburn's only senior, Franklin Williams, finished his home career with 14 points on 3-for-12 shooting.
"When you've got seven guys, they have to give a tremendous effort and they have to give it every time out," Ellis said. "Doc played solid, but everyone else played below their norm. When that happens, you're not going to get where you need to be."
It was the third straight defeat for the Tigers and their 12th consecutive loss to Kentucky, which wn the East for the fifth time since the SEC split into divisions seven seasons ago.
Wayne Turner finished with 11 points in helping make up for a below-average night from Nazr Mohammed, the Wildcats' leading scorer who finished with three points and two rebounds.
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