It turns out that the road to the SEC Basketball Championship may run through the Kentucky Wildcats after all. A window was opened in the SEC race tonight when the #2 Florida Gators were upset on the road by Arkansas. And John Calipari’s Wildcats kicked down the door with a 77-55 win over the South Carolina Gamecocks. Now Kentucky is just one game behind the Gators in the SEC race and have a key game at Gainesville next Tuesday. And the Wildcats appear to be on the right track once again, with their fourth straight win and sixth in seven games.
But to be honest, a blowout of the Gamecocks was expected. South Carolina came into tonight’s game having lost four of five and are one of the worst defensive teams in the country. The big question was not if Kentucky would win, but by how much. And for how long they let the Gamecocks unnecessarily hang in the game. Kentucky started on fire with an 11-2 start, which was capped by a Julius Mays four point play. South Carolina fought back behind the three-point shot and eventually took a 18-17 lead at the 10:21 mark and the Rupp crowd got restless.
Tonight, there was no need to worry. Kentucky responded with an 11-0 run and outscored the Gamecocks 28-6 over the last ten minutes to take a 45-24 lead at halftime. And for the most part, Kentucky maintained the lead. An Alex Poythress three pointer of the “and one” variety put UK up 68-41 at the 9:00 minute mark. South Carolina made a late 8-0 run, but there really is no need to nitpick a 22 point win.
Kentucky got balanced team scoring tonight with five players in double digits, led by Julius Mays with 15 points. I really like the way that Mays is playing as he nailed 4-5 three pointers and had 4 assists. It was also nice to see a productive Willie Cauley-Stein after missing several games. Cauley-Stein had 13 points, on 5-7 shooting and grabbed 6 boards. Nerlens Noel was his usual self with 10 points, 10 boards, and 5 blocks. Kentucky outrebounded the Gamecocks 41-23. It was an impressive night all around as UK went 62.5% from long-range and 61.4% overall.
Like I said earlier, this is a game that Kentucky was expected to win and win big, so there is somewhat of a sigh of relief from the BBN. But the usual warts showed yet again. Kentucky shot just 64.3% from the charity stripe and the duo of Noel/Cauley-Stein went 3-8. Even the normally reliable Archie Goodwin went 7-12. And Kentucky should have won by 30+ but had 17 turnovers. So despite the outcome, this team remains a work in progress. You have to take it a small step forward that they were able to blow the Gamecocks out though and even beat the 17.5 point spread despite being their own worst enemy at times.
Maybe this team is finally starting to live up to expectations.