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March 16, 2007
As usual, Kentucky advances to second round
CHICAGO - This should get the critics off Tubby Smith's back.
For another 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.
Kentucky (22-11) advanced to the second round for the 16th straight year, and will play top-seeded Kansas on Sunday.
Scottie Reynolds, Big East rookie of the year, came up big in his first NCAA tournament appearance with 23 points. Curtis Sumpter added 19. But Villanova (22-11) doesn't have the firepower of last year's team that won a school-record 28 games, and it didn't have the consistency to pull off the upset.
Mike Nardi, playing on a badly sprained left ankle, missed two wide-open 3s in the last two minutes, one of which would have pulled Villanova within 2.
The last few weeks haven't been easy ones 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 by four 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.
When Smith left the floor after the game, one fan yelled, "Yeah, Tubby! You rock!"
How quickly things change.
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.
Smith said Thursday he hasn't lost any confidence in his abilities - or his players. And once they got going Friday, the Kentucky players showed why so much is expected of them. They 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.
This is only the first round, though, and Villanova exposed weaknesses in Kentucky's game that higher seeds figure to exploit.
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 - Villanova went cold at the most inopportune times Friday.
It went more than seven minutes without scoring in the first half, allowing Kentucky to climb back into the lead. Villanova managed only one field goal in a 9-minute span early in the second half, and that's when Kentucky took control for good.