LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Kelenna Azubuike found the way out of a season-long shooting slump—keep shooting.
Azubuike scored 21 points—just two off his career high—and No. 8 Kentucky routed Tennessee Tech 92-63 on Tuesday night.
Chuck Hayes overcame foul trouble to add 17 points and 11 rebounds for Kentucky (4-0) in its last basketball game before playing at No. 9 North Carolina on Saturday.
Azubuike’s emergence came at an opportune time for the Wildcats, who will play the Tar Heels, Indiana and Louisville on successive Saturdays in December.
Azubuike averaged 11.1 points per game last season and was expected to fill a larger role in Kentucky’s offense this season. But the junior swingman entered Tuesday’s game averaging 9.3 points and shooting 39.4 percent for the season. He made one 3-point attempt in 11 tries.
For a player who scored 3,530 points during his high school career in Oklahoma, Azubuike’s slump was somewhat of a mystery to some, but not to Kentucky coach Tubby Smith.
“We’ve talked about taking it to the rim,” Smith said of Azubuike. “With his athleticism, there’s no reason he shouldn’t take it to the rim.
“He looked very relaxed. He played with focus. Twenty-two minutes and 21 points—that’s impressive.”
Against the Golden Eagles (1-3) of the Ohio Valley Conference, Azubuike went 7-of-12 from the field and made half of his six 3-point attempts. He just missed his career high, set last season in a loss to Georgia.
“Kelenna struggled a bit, but he didn’t tonight,” said Tennessee Tech coach Mike Sutton, a former Kentucky assistant. “He got some easy scoring opportunities.”
Kentucky led 44-38 early in the second half when Azubuike started a 19-3 run with a three-point play. He had two of the Wildcats’ four 3-pointers during the run, which ended with Kentucky ahead 63-41 with 12:46 left.
“We played the game the right way in the second half,” Smith said. “It came at the right time.”
Tennessee Tech came no closer than 19 points after that. Kentucky extended its lead to as many as 34 points.
Kentucky raised its average winning margin this season to 24.5 points. But the best that can be said of the Wildcats’ opponents thus far—Coppin State, Ball State and Georgia State were the others—is that they are little-known.
The same can’t be said for North Carolina.
“That’s why you come to Kentucky, to play teams like North Carolina,” Hayes said.
Willie Jenkins, the OVC newcomer of the year last season, led Tennessee Tech with 18 points and six rebounds. The Golden Eagles shot 52.4 percent in the first half but made just 10 of 31 shots after halftime, finishing at 40.4 percent.
“Defensively, we’re getting there,” Hayes said. “We’re making progress.”
About the only thing that kept Hayes from having a better outing was foul trouble. The senior forward went 3-of-3 from the field, scored 10 points and grabbed six rebounds in the first 7 1/2 minutes, but spent long stretches on the bench after picking up his second and third fouls.
“We needed to get him off the glass and off the line, and we didn’t do either,” Sutton said of Hayes. “He’s what’s great about college basketball.”
Hayes, who made all five of his shots and posted his third double-double of the season, wasn’t the only player in foul trouble. The teams combined for 49 fouls and took 56 free throws.
Kentucky led 40-33 after a ragged first half in which the teams combined for 24 fouls and 20 turnovers.
The Wildcats never trailed, but also never led by more than 10 points in the half. Jenkins kept the Golden Eagles close with 13 points, including three 3-pointers.
Patrick Sparks scored 11 points and added five assists for Kentucky. Milone Clark scored 12 points on 5-of-7 shooting for the Golden Eagles, who committed 24 turnovers.
One of Sutton’s assistant coaches at Tennessee Tech is Saul Smith, Tubby Smith’s son and a former Kentucky player. Before the game, Sutton and Saul Smith received a warm ovation from fans at Rupp Arena—a rarity for Kentucky opponents.