March 16, 2007
CHICAGO (AP) - Tubby Smith was walking off the floor when a fan called out, "Yeah, Tubby! You rock!"
Nothing like another Kentucky win in the NCAA tournament to get the critics off of Smith's back. For one day, at least.
Randolph Morris finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds, and eighth-seeded Kentucky flexed its muscle in the second half for a 67-58 victory over ninth-seeded Villanova in the West Regional on Friday night.
Jodie Meeks (12), Ramel Bradley (11) and Joe Crawford (10) also finished in double figures.
"I always felt we have an unbelievable amount of talent, it's a matter of playing together," Smith said. "There can be those negative things that will send you into a tailspin if you allow them. I think because of some of the tight losses and games we've had, that's been the case. Randolph has taken it on himself to be a focal point and accept the responsibility of being a leader."
Villanova (22-11) doesn't have the firepower of last season's team, and it didn't have the consistency to pull off the victory. Mike Nardi, playing on a badly sprained left ankle, missed two wide-open 3-pointers in the last 2 minutes, one of which would have pulled Villanova within two.
Scottie Reynolds, Big East rookie of the year, came up big in his first NCAA tournament appearance with 23 points, including 8-of-12 shooting from the line. Curtis Sumpter added 19 in his first tournament game in almost two years.
"We didn't think we played great," 'Nova coach Jay Wright said. "You've got to give Kentucky credit. I told (Villanova) it's tough finishing when you don't think you played great."
Kentucky (22-11) advanced to the second round for the 16th straight year and will play top-seeded Kansas on Sunday.
"It means a lot, to get our confidence back and show what a good team we are," Crawford said. "Once we got one game under our belt, I think the next game's going to be a lot better."
The last few weeks haven't been easy for Kentucky. The team came into the tournament with losses in six of its last nine games, and Smith has been criticized so heavily that athletic director Mitch Barnhart felt compelled to give him a vote of confidence earlier this week.
Though players insisted they haven't been distracted, they looked sluggish for much of the first half and fell behind early in the second. But Crawford, who made only one basket in the first half, drained a 3-pointer to put Kentucky up 40-36, and the southern 'Cats were off and running.
Meeks hit a pull-up jumper, and Bobby Perry followed with a hook shot to give Kentucky a 44-37 lead. Sumpter halted the Kentucky spurt with a layup, but Meeks came right back and buried a 3.
When Morris converted a pair of free throws to push the lead to 49-39 with 8:26 left, the Kentucky fans were on their feet and cheering like it was the good old days.
"I think we got on the boards, rebounded real well and started sharing the ball," Sheray Thomas said. "That led to easy baskets, we started making free throws and got the lead boosted up to 10 points."
Smith won a national title his first year at Kentucky, has been to the NCAA tournament in each of the last 14 years and has a winning percentage that most coaches would envy.
But the expectations are different at Kentucky, the winningest program in college basketball. NCAA appearances are nice, but the Kentucky faithful want - make that expect - the team to contend for a national title every year.
When Kentucky limped to the finish of the regular season, many wondered if Smith might be on his way out. That Barnhart had to give a public vote of support showed just how far out of favor Smith had fallen.
"Playing for Kentucky and coaching Kentucky is one of the hardest jobs to do," Crawford said. "We just have to not worry about that and focus on playing our best basketball game by game."
The showing against Villanova was a good start. Kentucky outmuscled Villanova inside, finishing with a 37-30 edge in rebounds and outscoring 'Nova 24-18 in the paint.
Whenever Kentucky needed a big shot, Meeks, Crawford and Bradley always seemed to respond.
"The team really plays off what I can bring to the table," Morris said. "If I can draw double teams and free teammates and get them going, that's what I need to do."
Villanova started strong, making its first four tries from 3-point range. When Nardi, who'd played only 23 minutes in the last three games because of his ankle injury, hit the fourth, it gave 'Nova a 14-9 lead with 13:50 left in the first half.
But this isn't the Villanova team that earned a No. 1 seed last year. It lost starters Randy Foye, Allan Ray and Kyle Lowry. While Reynolds is a spectacular pickup - he planned to go to Oklahoma until Kelvin Sampson left - its lack of offensive depth hurt against Kentucky.
"We just haven't been a great offensive team," Wright said. "You try to keep yourself in it defensively and with some offensive rebounds, but that's where Kentucky really impressed me. They killed us on the boards.
"They were the better team," Wright added. "We didn't bring it."