Date story published: Saturday, March 12, 2005
ATLANTA -- On the list of no-nos, it was closer to don't tug on Superman's cape than don't spit in the wind.
Yet Tennessee reserve Jemere Hendrix talked trash, to borrow a players' term, before last night's game against Kentucky.
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Kentucky is seeking its 26th Southeastern Conference Tournament championship (and sixth in Coach Tubby Smith's eight seasons). Coming off a loss at Florida last weekend, the Cats held a mid-week players-only meeting to discuss bringing more passion to the post-season.
Adding a log to this roaring fire, Hendrix decided to taunt UK players in the tunnel leading out to the Georgia Dome court before last night's quarterfinal game.
"I wanted to let them know we're in the house tonight," he said after UK spanked the Vols 76-62. "I wanted to make sure they wouldn't be looking on till (today's semifinals)."
As bad decisions go, Hendrix rivaled Michael Jackson coming to court in his pajamas bottoms more than an hour late.
"It helped a lot," UK senior Chuck Hayes said of Hendrix inciting the Cats. "Look at the way we were clicking."
Hayes was particularly animated. He flung his arms in exultation. He bumped chests with teammates. He flexed his right arm after muscling in a three-point play. He waved a towel when Ramel Bradley hit a three-pointer with 49.6 seconds left.
As the game neared its conclusion, Hayes appeared to make a slashing gesture across his throat, but he emphatically corrected any implication of a negative message.
"I was telling Ramel not to shoot (on the game's final possession)," Hayes said, before telling reporters, "Write that down."
UK, which improved to 24-4 overall, gained the 1,900th victory in the program's proud history.
Kentucky showed extraordinary passion from the start and rolled to its second-highest scoring first half of the season. Only the 49 points against Louisiana State on Jan. 22 topped the scoring explosion that put the Cats ahead 47-29 at halftime.
Given UK's passionate interest, Tennessee's chances to spring an upset victory seemed slim. Those chances receded to none when point guard C.J. Watson picked up his second foul 19 seconds into the game.
Less than a minute later, Kelenna Azubuike and Rajon Rondo collaborated on a play that set a tone. Rondo fired a diagonal bounce pass on the fast break that Azubuike caught in stride and dunked.
Hayes, standing on the other side of halfcourt, flung his arms outward in a take-that gesture.
On UK's next possession, Rondo drove pretty as you please to a fast-break layup that made it 5-0 and prompted a Tennessee timeout with 18:13 left.
The timeout did not slow Kentucky. Most tellingly, Azubuike ripped a rebound from Scooter McFadgon's grasp and laid in a basket. The next possession saw Azubuike hit a three-pointer, giving him 10 of UK's first 13 points. That topped the nine points he scored at Florida last weekend and equaled the 10 he totaled against Tennessee in Lexington last week.
Trailing 15-4, Tennessee called another timeout with 15:38 left. Again, UK continued piling it on. Another Rondo fast-break layup and three-point play put the Cats ahead 20-7 at the 13:49 mark. Lukasz Obrzut's left-handed baby hook gave UK a 24-9 lead two minutes later.
Tennessee got as close as 12. Then Sparks and Rondo collaborated on another memorable play. Sparks timed a fast-break move to throw a pass between his legs that Rondo caught and dunked. That made it 36-14, prompting yet another Tennessee timeout.
Any flickering thought that this night did not belong to Kentucky got snuffed with 3:31 left. Sparks fired a three-point shot that bounced five feet above the rim before settling in the basket.
Meanwhile, Tennessee's steadiest player, freshman Chris Lofton, struggled. The Mason County product took his first shot with 11:50 left in the half: a forced three-pointer over Ravi Moss that hit short off the rim. His only basket in the first came on a drive past Josh Carrier and a floating flip in the lane with 1:28 left.
A flurry of Tennessee three-pointers prevented a blowout victory. The Vols hit six of their first nine three-point attempts to start the second half. Lofton hit two, the first bringing Tennessee within 57-48 and the second narrowing the lead to 61-51.
The Vols got no closer.