No. 4 Kentucky 76, Tennessee 62
ATLANTA (AP)—Looking to bounce back from a rare loss, Kentucky was right where it needed to be.
The Southeastern Conference tournament.
Kelenna Azubuike scored 18 points, Patrick Sparks added 16 and the fourth-ranked Wildcats cruised to a 76-62 quarterfinal victory over Tennessee on Friday night.
Kentucky (24-4) has lost only three times in its last 36 tournament games, and this one was never in doubt. The Wildcats had a double-digit lead before the game was six minutes old, and they stretched the margin to 34-14 when Sparks drove for a hoop with more than five minutes left in the opening half.
“We wanted to come out and play with passion, a sense of urgency,” Kentucky senior Chuck Hayes said.
The Wildcats, who already won the league’s regular-season title, are going for a third straight tournament title. They have won 10 of the past 13, bringing their overall haul to 25 championships—more than the other 11 schools combined.
Kentucky closed the regular season with a 53-52 loss at Florida, but there was no carry-over five days later against Tennessee (14-17).
“You can’t win every game,” Wildcats coach Tubby Smith said. “We know that.”
The loss is sure to turn up the heat on embattled Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson, whose record in four seasons is a mediocre 61-59—with no NCAA tournament appearances. The Volunteers failed to even qualify for an NIT bid, the second time that’s happened on Peterson’s watch.
“It’s disappointing,” he said. “It doesn’t meet my standards at all. I’ve been in winning programs, where we competed for championships.”
But Peterson wouldn’t address his future.
“I’m not discussing that,” he said. “My job now is to take care of these guys until they’re through playing for us.”
The Vols coach used three of his timeouts in the first half—a futile attempt to stifle the Kentucky onslaught. Tennessee didn’t put up much of a fight, allowing the Wildcats to swoop through the lane several times with only token resistance.
“Obviously, we didn’t get the best of starts,” Peterson said. “They delivered a punch. But we were not intimidated. We showed a lot of character.”
Azubuike was largely responsible for the quick start. He scored 10 of Kentucky’s first 13 points, hitting a couple of 3s.
Sparks had things going his way, too. He came up with the most spectacular play of the night while leading a fast break, looking to his right before flipping a between-the-legs pass to Rajon Rondo, who soared off the left wing for a dunk. A couple of possessions later, Sparks put up a 3-pointer that struck the back of the rim, but bounced straight up and dropped softly through the hoop.
Kentucky led 47-29 at the half on the way to beating Tennessee for the third straight time this season, the average margin 16 points.
C.J. Watson scored 26 points to lead Tennessee despite picking up two fouls in the first 19 seconds. He returned four minutes later and managed to make it the rest of the way without fouling out.
Watson hit three straight 3-pointers early in the second half, capping an 11-1 run that pulled Tennessee to 57-48. The Vols couldn’t get any closer, even though Kentucky wasn’t nearly as sharp after the break.
“We had a very impressive first half,” Smith said. “We got a little complacent in the second half.”
Kentucky, which has its eye on a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, advanced to face LSU in Saturday’s semifinals.
The Wildcats sure look like a top seed to Peterson.
“They just have so many weapons,” he said.
Despite being played in Atlanta, the SEC tournament essentially has the look of a Kentucky home game. The crowd of more than 20,000 was comprised almost entirely of those wearing blue, transforming the host city into “Cat-Lanta.”
“We love the Georgia Dome,” Azubuike said. “It’s a shooting gym.”
Before the game, a moment of silence was observed for three victims of a courthouse shooting Friday morning. The victims were gunned down just a few blocks from the dome, leading to extra security for the quarterfinals.