ATLANTA (Ticker) -- Kelenna Azubuike and Kentucky simply overmatched Tennessee.
Azubuike scored 10 of his 18 points in the first 3 1/2 minutes as the fourth-ranked Wildcats took a commanding lead early and cruised to a 76-62 victory over Tennessee in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference tournament.
The junior forward had a dunk, layup and two 3-pointers as Kentucky raced to a 13-4 lead. Later in the half, point guard Patrick Sparks capped a 9-0 run by making a pass between his legs on a fast break that Rajon Rondo finished with a dunk for a 36-14 lead with 4 1/2 minutes to go. The Wildcats surged to a 47-29 cushion at intermission.
"We just made a conscious effort to come out with enthusiasm," Azubuike said. "I think it helped us out a lot and we were really comfortable with ourselves on the floor."
C.J. Watson did his part to help Kentucky feel comfortable in front of the partisan Wildcat crowd by picking up two quick fouls in the first 18 seconds of the contest.
"Of all the players on our team, the guy who is very important for us is C.J. Watson," Tennessee coach Buzz Peterson said. "Obviously, we didn't get the best of starts there with C.J. getting two quick fouls. He's a key for us. We've got to have him in there to put heat on the defense to push the ball."
By the time Watson returned with 13:50 remaining in the first half, his team fell had fallen behind, 19-7, and committed five of their 12 turnovers in the opening 20 minutes.
"We just wanted to come out and play with a sense of urgency," added Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes, who finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds to collect his 22nd career double-double. "We wanted to play for ourselves because we all have one common goal."
"We just turned the ball over way too much," added Peterson. "I sat (Watson) down and they made some huge runs."
After Azubuike scored to give Kentucky (24-4) a 56-37 lead with 17 minutes left, Watson scored eight points and Lofton six during a run that pulled the Volunteers (14-17) within 61-51 with 12 minutes left.
But Sparks' 3-pointer with five minutes to go rebuilt the lead to 68-54.
"We had some chances to take it from nine to six or seven, but we missed a couple of threes," Peterson said. "We missed some opportunities to cut it close. It's disappointing to lose the game."
Sparks scored 16 points and Atlanta native Morris Randolph added 11 for Kentucky, which will face Louisiana State in the semifinals Saturday before throngs of Wildcat fans in their adopted home of "Cat-lanta."
"To play in front of these fans, there's no reason not for you to get up and play," Hayes said. "This team is measured by championships. Every game, that's the effort we have to give."
In this one, some of the pregame excitement surrounding the contest spilled over to the Tennessee and Kentucky players, as they had to be separated by security in the tunnel underneath the arena after jawing with each other.
"It was just competition between the two teams," Hayes said. "They're our long rival. (There's) something between the two states. They don't like each other."
"There was no altercation," added Volunteers forward Brandon Crump. "Words were just exchanged."
Watson scored a career-high 26 points for the Volunteers, who lost all three contests against the Wildcats this season.