Chuck Hayes and Kelenna Azubuike scored 16 points each to lead Kentucky to a 72-64 first-round victory Thursday over Eastern Kentucky. ``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.'' The Wildcats were outrebounded 33-31 and the Colonels effective shut down Kentucky's perimeter game, but the interior scoring and muscle of Hayes and Azubuike made the difference.
``They're a very physical team,'' Colonels forward Michael Haney said. ``Hayes is very strong. He always kept a body on me and pushed me out of the post.''
``There were several points in the game where guys could have held their heads and gotten concerned,'' said coach Travis Ford, ``But we stuck with our game plan, they continued to execute.'' EKU played a sloppy first half and missed several opportunities to get close. Even so, the Colonels were not going down without a fight, and cut the lead to five fairly late in the game when the Colonels ripped off an 8-point run to draw to within 67-62 with just over 2 minutes remaining.
``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.''
``I was very impressed with the toughness of Eastern,'' Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. ``That was our biggest challenge, overcoming their toughness.'' It looked as though it would be over early when Kentucky went on a 25-9 first-half run that gave it a 35-20 lead. But Eastern did not get rattled.
Even in the second half when the Cats once again extended the lead to 16, the Colonels did not fold. "I am so proud of these guys, " Ford said, "I cannot tell you how much." The Cats did manage to hold on and close out the game.