Saturday’s 86-52 rout by top-ranked Kentucky was a game South Carolina would rather forget.
The Wildcats scored nearly half of their first-half shots with dunks. They dominated the paint on both ends while extending their winning streak to 15 games. And Colonial Life Arena was filled mostly with their fans.
“The people in South Carolina have to understand ... this is the best we played,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
Saturday’s 34-point loss was USC’s most lopsided since Kentucky beat the Gamecocks in Lexington in 2007 by 38 points. The South Carolina football team scored more points (54) against Kentucky this fall than the basketball team did on Saturday.
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Coach Darrin Horn did not make excuses for the worst defeat in his nine-year coaching career at South Carolina and Western Kentucky. He did not blame the road-like atmosphere in the arena or the team’s short turnaround from playing at Florida late Thursday night.
Horn said his team allowed Kentucky (23-1, 8-0) to score easily off dribble drives and was stagnant on offense.
In the locker room after the game, Horn said he told the team that, “This was the first time in a really long time I can remember that I didn’t think we played early on with kind of the fight that we have to,” Horn said. “We looked like freshmen and sophomores tonight. We hadn’t done that for several weeks.”
USC senior Malik Cooke said the team “is ready to move on to the next game. We can’t dwell on this too much.”
Kentucky bolted from the gate to lead by 11 points a little more than six minutes into the game with four dunks from alley-oops. South Carolina cut the lead to seven points three minutes later behind a pair of 3-pointers by freshman Damien Leonard.
But soon after, forward Damontre Harris, who had to stay in the game to slow Kentucky, picked up his third foul. With USC’s best post player on the bench, the Wildcats powered past the Gamecocks with an 11-0 run. The Wildcats had three players in double figures, led by Davis’ 18 points, to take a 52-25 halftime lead.
Kentucky did not let up in the second half, shooting near 50 percent and leading by as many as 41 points in front an adoring crowd of its fans.
“It felt like a home game,” said freshman Anthony Davis, who scored a game-high 22 points, including seven dunks, and was called the nation’s best player by Horn. “There was so much blue in the crowd.”
While Kentucky draws a large contingent of fans to road games, Calipari said the crowd on Saturday in Columbia was bigger than usual. Attendance was a season-high 16,527 at Colonial Life Arena.
“Our fans treat these guys like rock stars,” Calipari said. “When I walked out into that arena, I was like, ‘What in the world?’”
The rout ended a streak of decent showings for USC. The Gamecocks had played well in their previous three games — beating Alabama and staying close late in losses at Mississippi and Florida. South Carolina dropped its fifth consecutive game to Kentucky since upsetting the top-ranked Wildcats two years ago.
USC finished 1-7 in the first half of SEC play — a brutal slate that included seven games against five teams with top-40 RPI rankings. The Gamecocks are off to their worst start in the SEC since starting 1-8 in 2003. They fell to 9-13 overall.
Horn is under fire from some fans while trying to avoid a third consecutive losing season in his four campaigns at South Carolina. Calipari repeated what he said Friday — that Horn deserves seven or eight years to try to turn around the program.
“You can’t come in here in three or four years. You need that run to be able to get by,” Calipari said. “You got the facilities, you got a great campus, you got a state that’s got great players. It’s in an unforgiving league. And then what happened today makes it look bad. But let me just say this, whoever we play today, what?”
“That would happen,” answered Terrence Jones, who scored 16 points.
Calipari replied, “It didn’t matter who we played, someone was getting beat by 30 today because of how we played. It was not South Carolina. It was us.”
The Kentucky coach said he expects Horn will lure some good recruits and the young Gamecocks, who have two upperclassmen this season, to mature.
A pair of freshmen led USC in scoring on Saturday. Guard Damien Leonard posted a career-high 19 points, while forward Anthony Gill added 10 points.
But the team’s leading scorers, Cooke and Bruce Ellington, were held to eight points combined, and South Carolina could not overcome the more athletic and speedy Wildcats.
“It was pretty hard to get into a rhythm,” Cooke said. “We could never really get it going.”
Jones 5-10 6-7 16, Kidd-Gilchrist 2-7 3-6 7, Davis 9-10 4-5 22, Lamb 6-7 3-3 18, Teague 2-6 0-0 4, Miller 2-5 0-0 5, Beckham 0-1 0-0 0, Vargas 1-2 0-0 2, Wiltjer 5-14 0-0 12. Totals 32-62 16-21 86.
SOUTH CAROLINA (9-13)
Gill 3-8 2-6 10, Cooke 2-9 0-0 5, Harris 2-4 1-2 5, Ellington 1-9 0-0 3, Leonard 7-16 1-3 19, Williams 1-2 0-0 3, Richardson 0-1 0-0 0, Smith 1-3 0-0 2, Jackson 1-4 0-0 2, Slawson 0-1 1-2 1, Geathers 0-2 2-2 2. Totals 18-59 7-15 52.
Halftime: Kentucky 52-25. 3-Point Goals: Kentucky 6-14 (Lamb 3-3, Wiltjer 2-4, Miller 1-3, Jones 0-1, Kidd-Gilchrist 0-1, Teague 0-2), South Carolina 9-20 (Leonard 4-8, Gill 2-2, Williams 1-1, Cooke 1-4, Ellington 1-5). Fouled Out: None. Rebounds: Kentucky 41 (Davis 8), South Carolina 30 (Harris 6). Assists: Kentucky 17 (Jones, Miller 4), South Carolina 10 (Ellington 3). Total Fouls: Kentucky 13, South Carolina 16. Attendance: 16,527.