Date story published: Wednesday, December 1, 2004
At tuneups go, Kentucky saw last night's 92-63 victory over Tennessee Tech as a high-note performance.
In particular, the second half saw UK outclass Tennessee Tech at both ends of the floor, a dominating performance the Cats hope to use as a springboard to Saturday's battle of college basketball blue bloods at North Carolina.
"I thought it was our best basketball so far," UK Coach Tubby Smith said of the second half. "And it came at the right time."
Kentucky (4-0) limited Tech to 33.3-percent shooting in the second half.
The Cats found their collective shooting eye, making six of 13 three-point attempts in the second half.
Best of all, perhaps, UK got contributions from nearly every player on a night its heart and soul, Chuck Hayes, played only 18 minutes (his lowest since his sophomore season) because of foul trouble.
This caused Smith to conclude, "So I'm sure everybody is upbeat as we prepare for a very good, talented, experienced North Carolina team."
What pleased Smith was a defense that learned from its first half and stopped yielding driving layups in the second.
Then there was UK's shooting, a product of improving offensive execution. Coming off a 2-for-15 night against Georgia State last weekend, the Cats broke the game open with a 19-3 run early in the second half.
Kelenna Azubuike, who broke out of a shooting slump, hit two of his season-high three three-pointers in the breakout. He finished with a season-high 21 points, two shy of his career high.
Smith noted Azubuike's "focus and concentration," which showed itself in more determined drives to the basket.
"We're happy to have him playing well," Smith said. "He's one of the guys we have to have playing well."
Azubuike downplayed his personal breakout.
"You have a bad game, or two or three bad games," he said with a smile. "You can't let it get to you or discourage you. ...
"You have to tell yourself it's OK, the next one will fall," he said of his 1-for-11 three-point shooting before last night. "That's what I tried to do."
Azubuike was not the only UK player to feel good after the game. Ten players scored. The same number played 10 or more minutes.
The exception was Shagari Alleyne, the 7-foot-3 sophomore who had demonstrated great improvement this season.
In his post-game remarks before taking questions, Smith termed Alleyne's benching a coach's decision.
Given Alleyne's improved play, the decision did not seem based on an on-court problem. Smith only said, "Hopefully he understands he has to take care of business."
Kentucky never trailed nor took control in the first half.
UK's depth -- nine player scored -- kept the Cats ahead, by as much as 38-28 late in the half.
Willie Jenkins, the Ohio Valley Conference pre-season choice as player of the year, kept Tennessee Tech within reach. He led all scorers in the first half with 13 points, which included 3-for-5 three-point shooting and decisive moves to the basket.
Hayes and Azubuike got Kentucky off to a solid start. The team leaders combined for UK's first 13 points, and 15 of the first 17.
The exception was, well, an exceptional play. Patrick Sparks ran down a fast-break pass and in one motion re-directed the ball to Rajon Rondo, who dunked.
That play helped the Cats to an early 17-12 lead.
Yet UK seemed tired or bored with another early-season cupcake, to borrow a Dick Vitale term.
UK Coach Tubby Smith shook things up at the 12:29 mark by substituting Bobby Perry, Lukasz Obrzut and Ravi Moss. With 10:28 left and the Cats ahead 19-15, he tried a guard combination of Josh Carrier and Brandon Stockton. Carrier hit his first three-pointer of the season. Carrier also took a charge, a maneuver his teammates found difficult to achieve against the quicker Golden Eagles.
With UK ahead 22-20, Smith went back to the starters at the 8:40 mark. The starters played with more vigor, perhaps because of a switch to a more aggressive half-court trap.
Freshman big man Randolph Morris scored six of UK's last 11 points to help establish a 40-33 halftime lead.