Date story published: Sunday, February 6, 2005
NASHVILLE -- Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith took comfort in Kelenna Azubuike's banked three-point shot as the first-half buzzer sounded.
"I told the staff, it's going to be a good day," Smith said after Kentucky's 84-70 victory at Vanderbilt yesterday. But coaching caution kept Smith from premature celebration. "Nothing is more insignificant than a halftime score," the UK coach said, "I promise you that."
Chuck Hayes' first three-point basket in almost exactly a year surely eased any lingering doubt about Kentucky turning a 17-point halftime lead into victory. That shot, which came midway through the second half, convinced the player guarding Hayes.
Vandy forward Corey Smith had a quick reply when a reporter noted that it was Hayes' first three-pointer since Feb. 7, 2004.
"Trust me, I know," the Vandy player said. "I think discouraging is probably an understatement. It's retarded. You have a scouting report that says Chuck Hayes can't shoot, and he hits a three."
Nearly everything worked well for Kentucky, which blew away Vandy and any suggestion that a week off had slowed the team's steady improvement.
"We were unconscious," Tubby Smith said of UK's 8-for-17 accuracy from beyond the arc. "Making the threes we made, that's a big, big key."
Freaky three-point shooting aside, Kentucky used its old reliable -- defense -- to snuff out even the possibility of a Vanderbilt victory. Of UK's first 71 points, 30 were produced by converting Vandy turnovers. That pattern of turnover-creates-opportunistic score propelled the Cats to a 17th victory in 19 games. Kentucky completed the first half of its Southeastern Conference schedule at 8-0, thus keeping alive the now-acknowledged possibility of the league's third unbeaten regular-season record since 1956.
Tubby Smith called it UK's best performance "till the last five minutes.
"I thought we were just playing lights out: executing, reading the passing lanes, challenging shots. I thought it was our best effort in those areas."
Vandy, which fell to 13-9 overall and 4-5 in the SEC, trailed 9-0 inside the first five minutes and never seriously threatened Kentucky. The Cats led 17-8 before making their first three-pointer.
Freshman Rajon Rondo, who hadn't made a shot from beyond the arc since Jan. 19, made the first of UK's three improbable treys. He beat the shot clock with a three-pointer that extended UK's lead to 33-16.
After the Cats converted 13 Vandy giveaways into a 22-4 advantage in points off turnovers, Azubuike banked in a three-pointer. "I just tried to throw it up there and it went in," he said.
Rondo set up the shot by taking an inbounds pass with 4.2 seconds left, sprinting past halfcourt and delivering the pass.
"It hurt real bad," Corey Smith said. "You think, maybe it's their day. Maybe it's not our day."
Vandy twice narrowed UK's lead to 12 early in the second half and trailed 61-47 when Hayes made his three.
"Man, it's been forever," Hayes said of his last three, which came against South Carolina a year ago today. That's 31 games and eight attempts ago.
Hayes, who hadn't made any of his previous five three-point attempts this season, missed a perimeter shot in the first minute. He almost always holsters his face-the-basket shots after a miss, but not at Vandy.
"You can't be afraid of it," he said. "It'll haunt you. I stepped out. My guy backed off. You had to make him respect you."
When Patrick Sparks penetrated on the drive, Hayes set up on the right side and called for the ball.
"I told Sparks to kick it to me," said. " 'Kick it! Kick it!' "
Hayes, who matched Azubuike and Sparks with a team-high 15, credited the mask he wears to protect the broken nose he sustained at Tennessee on Jan. 25.
"With the mask, I seriously focus on the rim," Hayes said. "Without the mask, I go up and I can see everybody below me."
On UK's next possession, Sparks hit a three-pointer.
"It gets you going," Sparks said of the unexpected benefit of any trey by Hayes and a banked one by Azubuike. "You get more relaxed. Plus it extends the lead. You play more relaxed."
More relaxed was how Hayes described his adjustment to playing with a mask.
"It's all mental and I'm over it," said Hayes, who matched a season-high with 13 rebounds. "I've gotten comfortable with the mask."