By KEITH PEEL, Contributing Writer
Sometimes in athletic competition players give all they have and perform at the highest level possible and still lose the competition. Sometimes the other team is more talented and wins the game. Such was not the case in Columbia, South Carolina on Tuesday night. The Kentucky Wildcats played below the level of the competition and lost on the road for the second time this season in the SEC.
For much of the first half and the early minutes of the second half UK proved they were the more talented team. But when it counted – down the stretch in the second half – Frank Martin proved once again that he is a master at taking players that are limited athletically and molding them into a team that plays “in-your-face”, push and shove defense that allows his teams to win games like the one with Kentucky Tuesday night.
Neither team shot the ball particularly well from the field but Kentucky did enough to build a fourteen point lead with about twelve minutes to go in the second half. After both teams traded intentional fouls the wheels seemed to come off for Kentucky. With South Carolina playing their patented “push and shove” defense they rattled the Wildcat freshmen and slowly cut the lead from 14 points with slightly less than twelve minutes to go down to a tie game at the 4:02 mark. From that point on it was all Gamecocks as they continued to physically man-handle UK players as they drove to the basket while Chris Silva bullied his way through the paint for South Carolina on the offensive end of the floor.
For a coach that hates to play zone defense Calipari had the Wildcats in a zone for the last part of the first half when UK held South Carolina without a field goal for ten minutes. South Carolina was again very cold shooting the ball to start the second half as UK continued to play a zone defense. The Wildcats – as they have done all season long when playing a 2-3 zone – began in the second half to allow easy entry of the ball into the high post allowing South Carolina to play a lot of high-low offense. This led to easy baskets in the paint or free throws for South Carolina players. This poor execution of their zone defense caused the UK coaching staff to begin to switch back and forth between a 2-3 zone and a man-to-man defense in the second half. That allowed South Carolina to get the ball in to their big man – Chris Silva – in the paint where he scored repeatedly around the basket. Silva finished with 27 points for the game on 9 for 17 shooting. The rest of the South Carolina team was 14 of 44 for 32%.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats down the stretch they failed to execute the little things that had them winning close contests with Texas A&M and Vanderbilt. UK missed five of eight free throws in the last four minutes of the game while South Carolina made nine of ten to close the game out. On a night when South Carolina only shot 38% from the field free throws proved to be critical. Both teams combined to commit a whopping 59 fouls over the course of a forty minute game. UK shot 63% from the line and committed 16 turnovers. Either of those numbers will get you beat playing on the road in the SEC.
All in all it was a poor performance by a group of freshmen playing in a hostile SEC road environment for only the fourth time this season. Two of UK’s four losses have been on the road this season. Expect more road losses to come if this team can’t find players that will play team ball, guys that can step up and make plays down the stretch to close out a game – either on offense or defense – and some type of defense that can consistently get stops when they are needed. In Columbia Tuesday night during the last ten minutes of the game UK found none of the above.