INDIANAPOLIS - Only four times in NCAA history has a No. 2 seed upset a No. 15 seed. The Eastern Kentucky coaching staff made sure its players knew all about that.
Kentucky made sure it wasn't the fifth victim. The Wildcats got two clutch free throws from Chuck Hayes and one from Ravi Moss en route to a hard-fought 72-64 win over the Colonels at the RCA Dome Thursday afternoon in a first-round game.
It was Hayes' play throughout the second half that enabled the Wildcats to avoid being an upset victim. In the final 20 minutes, he scored 10 points and pulled down seven rebounds.
"It was obvious after the first half that we needed some energy and a spark," Hayes said after his 16-point effort. "I tried to bring back the intensity. We were being out-rebounded, and I challenged myself to get every rebound, and to work my way around my man."
Hayes made a couple of key plays down the stretch. His layup off an alley-oop pass gave the Wildcats an 11-point lead, and after keeping an offensive rebound alive, he muscled a shot in to make it 67-59 with 2:40 left in the game. He added two clutch free throws with 55.3 left to give the Wildcats a seven-point lead, 71-64.
All told, Kentucky hit 11 of 19 field goal attempts in the second half, and that was enough to keep the Colonels away.
"We're pleased to be advancing on," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "I was very impressed. Travis (Ford, former Kentucky star) had his team ready to play. It's tough to get the first game under your belt. It's even tougher when it's against a school right down the road.
"The score wasn't indicative of how well Eastern was playing. Their energy level was high and they were hurting us with their three-point shooting. They were a very physical team. I was impressed with the toughness of EKU. That was the biggest thing for us to overcome."
Eastern Kentucky knocked down 6 of 18 from beyond the arc. Ben Rushing knocked down two in a two-minute span to cut Kentucky's once 15-point lead down to six, 60-54, with 6:20 left in the game.
With a chance to cut the lead to two or three, Rushing forced a shot in heavy traffic, and then Rajon Rondo knocked down two free throws to make it 62-54. A layup by Michael Haney (12 points) and a three by Matt Witt (21 points) cut the deficit to 64-59 with 4:32 left.
Again, Kentucky answered back. Randolph Morris blocked a shot by EKU's Alonzo Hird (11 points, 14 rebounds), and went on to knock down a free throw on the ensuing possession for a 65-59 lead. Hayes scored 30 seconds later to get the lead back up to eight.
"We definitely don't plan those one-armed leaners to the right shots, but when you've made as many shots as he had, hey, maybe luck is on his side," Ford said. "That shot actually almost went in. I thought we had to go on a run in order to stay in the game. You aren't going to come back with two-pointers. We drew up a lot of plays to create three-pointers.
"I thought we played extremely hard. Im extremely proud of my players. There were several times where our guys could have hung their heads, and got concerned, but we stuck with our game plan. We made some big shots to bring us back after their big run."
CINCINNATI 76, IOWA 64
The Bearcats (25-7) used a fast start in the first 10 minutes and 57 percent shooting in the second half to knock off the Hawkeyes (21-12).
Cincinnati, led by Nick Williams (13 points) and Jason Maxiell (22 points), built a 23-5 lead in the first 10 1/2 minutes of the contest. Williams contributed five quick points, and Maxiell contributed four.
Iowa, despite shooting 26.7 percent in the first half, shaved the lead down to 32-22 at the half. Mike Henderson scored all seven of his points to lead Iowa in the opening 20 minutes. The 22 points was the lowest output by Iowa this season.
Iowa went on a 10-3 run to make it 35-32 with 18:04 left thanks to a three-pointer and layup by Greg Brunner (20 points) and a trey by Jeff Horner (13 points). Cincinnati bounced right back, extending the lead to double digits, 47-32, thanks to two three-pointers by Williams and two jump shots by Maxiell.
Cincinnati, thanks to solid defense, kept the pressure on the rest of the way. The Bearcats maintained a lead anywhere from 11 to 16 points in the final 13-plus minutes.
"Obviously we were happy to win," Cincinnati coach Bob Huggins said. "We knew it would be a hard game. I think our guys did a good job defensively."
So did Iowa coach Steve Alford.
"We made a good run to start the second half to our guys credit," Alford said. "We cut the lead to three with the ball and took a really bad shot, and they go down and make back-to-back threes. It went from being a three-point game with the ball to being down nine and that makes a big difference.
"We didn't shoot the ball very well, and they really shot the ball well the second half (57 percent). I thought each team was feeling each other out the first four minutes, but I thought they found our rhythm before we found ours. Their defense was more disruptive than ours in the first half."
ILLINOIS 67, FAIRLEIGH DICKINSON 55
The top-ranked Illini (33-1) overcame a sluggish start to put away the 16th seeded Knights (20-13), who were held to 24 second-half points.
Dee Brown, Illinois' ultra-quick Illini guard, keyed a 14-2 run to start the second half with nine points, including a three-pointer. The surge enabled Illinois to pad its 32-31 halftime lead to 46-33.
Brown finished with 19, followed by Luther Head with 13 and James Augustine with 11. The Knights' Gordon Klaiber led all scorers with 24.