Kentucky 72, Eastern Kentucky 64
INDIANAPOLIS (AP)—They slowed Kentucky’s fast break, shut down the Wildcats on the perimeter and even stole some of their state rival’s fans. But the Eastern Kentucky Colonels couldn’t stop the second-seeded Wildcats’ powerful inside game.
Chuck Hayes and Kelenna Azubuike overpowered the Colonels. Each scored 16 points, and Azubuike ignited an 8-0 run early in the second half of Kentucky’s 72-64 first-round victory Thursday.
“It was obvious from the first half that we needed some energy, somewhat of a spark,” Hayes said. “I challenged myself to get every rebound and work my way around my man.”
Kentucky (26-5) extended its NCAA record of tournament victories to 94 and is now 37-9 in NCAA tournament openers. The Wildcats actually have won 96 NCAA tournament games, but were forced to forfeit two wins in 1988 because of NCAA rules violations. They will face Cincinnati in Saturday’s second-round game of the Austin Regional.
But this was no typical tuneup for the Wildcats.
The pairing pitted schools about 30 miles apart and challenged the loyalties of some fans who normally cheer for both teams. One fan even held up a sign with a Kentucky message on one side and an Eastern Kentucky message on the other.
And the Colonels (22-9) weren’t about to let the Wildcats coast. Instead, they limited Kentucky to 2-of-11 shooting from 3-point range and got within five points in the last two minutes.
The difference was Kentucky’s dominant interior game. Hayes and Azubuike combined for 15 rebounds, and Kentucky had a 42-24 scoring advantage in the paint.
“They’re a very physical team,” Colonels forward Michael Haney said. “He (Hayes) is very strong. He always kept a body on me and pushed me out of the post.”
Eastern Kentucky hung around long enough in its first tournament appearance since 1979 to cause concern for Kentucky.
Matt Witt scored 21 points, Haney had 12 and Alonzo Hird finished with 11 points and 14 rebounds. The Colonels longest winning streak since 1964-65 ended at seven, and they dropped to 0-6 in NCAA tournament games and 0-9 against the Wildcats.
Eastern Kentucky was done in by two major problems—a sloppy first half and not converting on fast-break opportunities. About a half-dozen times, the Colonels either threw the ball away or missed layups on breakaways.
“There were several points in the game where guys could have held their heads and gotten concerned,” said Colonels coach Travis Ford, a former Kentucky player. “But we stuck with our game plan, they continued to execute.”
Ford tried everything to settle down his team early—slamming his foot on the floor, pleading with players, even trying to coax officials into making calls.
But with Hayes and Azubuike patrolling the middle and help off the bench from players such as Lukasz Orbrzut and Bobby Perry, the Wildcats were too strong.
“I was very impressed with the toughness of Eastern,” Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. “That was our biggest challenge, overcoming their toughness.”
Kentucky took control with a 25-9 first-half run that gave it a 35-20 lead.
Eastern Kentucky rallied within 40-32 at halftime and trailed 44-36 early in the second half, when Azubuike sparked the key run. He drove in for a thunderous dunk, then stole the ball and passed to Rajon Rondo for a breakaway layup. When the spurt ended, Kentucky led 52-36 and appeared headed toward a blowout.
The Colonels, though, charged back later with eight straight points. When Witt hit the last of his three 3-pointers, with 2:13 left, Eastern Kentucky was within 67-62.
Kentucky closed the game by shutting out the Colonels for the last 89 seconds.
“I was just thinking that we’ve got to execute our offense, don’t panic and keep our intensity and confidence and keep executing,” Azubuike said of the Colonels’ last spurt. “Teams go on runs. You can’t let that shake you.”