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.
"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
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
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."