By LARRY VAUGHT
COLUMBIA, S.C. — Just when it looked like Kentucky was going to put away a road win, the Wildcats collapsed.
Up 57-43 at South Carolina, the Cats missed their final seven shots of the game, missed key free throws and couldn’t get stops when they were needed. South Carolina outscored UK 33-11 the final 11 minutes, 20 seconds to win 76-68.
The loss ruined the long awaited debut of freshman Jarred Vanderbilt, who had six points, five rebounds, three assists and one blocked shot in 14 minutes. He had not played this season due to a leg injury but due to UK’s early foul trouble and lack of energy, Vanderbilt got the call and did help but not enough.
Kevin Knox had 21 points, eight rebounds, two assists and two steals. However, he admitted the Cats did not listen to coach John Calipari when it counted the most.
“Another great example of we don’t know how to close games out,” Knox said. “Coach was trying to get us to make winning plays and we were just trying to make our own plays. You see what happened and they won.”
Calipari said he knew the team was in trouble at the team’s shootaround when the Cats lacked focus and played that way.
He cited when UK had a 14-point lead and P.J. Washington threw a bad pass that went for a turnover and then Hami Diallo was called for an intentional foul for “pulling a guy’s shirt out of his pants.”
Calipari didn’t pull punches about his team.
“I the second half, we looked like a bunch of freshman playing like freshmen would play. I am kind of disappointed,” Calipari said. “There is the unwarranted arrogance of a team that thinks it is better than it is.”
Calipari said that Chris Silva “manhandled” UK inside. He had 27 points and eight rebounds while dominating the end of the game.
Guard Frank Booker had 18 points and thanked the fans for the atmosphere they created at the end.
“We just couldn’t stop the onslaught,” Calipari said. “You have got to give South Carolina credit. They are down and look like they are getting smacked. They never stopped playing. They got momentum.”
One problem had was that freshman point guard Quade Green did not make the trip and missed his third straight game with a back injury. Freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, UK’s best player in SEC play, had a game to forget. He was called for charging three times in the first half and had six points on 3-for-9 shooting and a career-high six turnovers in 28 minutes.
Calipari said UK played “a lot of the game (without a point guard) and when we did he was not very good. So basically we played the whole game without one.”
What irritated him even more was UK’s foul trouble. The Cats were called for 32 fouls and Nick Richards, Wenyen Gabriel and Hamidou Diallo all fouled out. South Carolina was called for 27 fouls but had more depth and also made free throws late when UK was missing at the foul line.
“I have never seen so many dumb fouls. Grab a guy and pull his shirt out. Do you think this is lacrosse? These guys are coming over to the bench and saying I didn’t foul but they looked like fouls every time we reached in,” Calipari said. “This one will be a tough second half to watch. First half probably will be too.”
Richards had 12 points and four rebounds while P.J. Washington had 10 points and two rebounds. UK was 22-for-49 from the field and just 1-for-11 from 3-point range where a streak of 1,030 straight games with a 3 was in jeopardy until Knox made one late in the game.
“We are not really a 3-point shooting team. We were not knocking them down,” Knox said. “They sat in the zone the second half and that changed the game. In man, we were killing them. They went to that zone and we couldn’t get anything inside.”
What about extending the streak?
“I was not aware of that. It was kind of late in the game and kind of close to ending that,” Knox said.
The first half was so, so bizarre. South Carolina got off to a 7-0 start and made seven of its first nine shots — quite a turnaround from its 27 percent shooting in Saturday’s game at Georgia. However, the Gamecocks then missed 15 shots in a row and went 10 minutes without a field goal.
Kentucky battled back and got a lift from Vanderbilt’s return. However, UK ended the half with four players — Sacha Killeya-Jones, Wenyen Gabriel, Vanderbilt and Hamidou Diallo — all with two fouls. And Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, UK’s best player in the SEC play, had three fouls — all offensive charges. He had five of UK’s 11 turnovers.
South Carolina had just seven turnovers, but UK had 13 points off turnovers to just six for south Carolina.
The teams combined for 31 fouls and 41 free throws in the marathon first half. Another odd twist had South Carolina putting up 14 3-pointers, and missing its last nine.’’