CHICAGO (AP) - 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.
Jodie Meeks (12), Ramel Bradley (11) and Joe Crawford (10) also finished in double figures.
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.
Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved