Downey, Carolina hand Cats first loss

jtipton@herald-leader.comJanuary 27, 2010 

When he saluted top-ranked Kentucky on Tuesday afternoon for their relief work for earthquake victims in Haiti, President Barack Obama made small talk by asking whom the Cats played next.

Told it was South Carolina, the president said, "You should be all right."

South Carolina had other ideas.

The Gamecocks, who had never beaten a No. 1 team in seven tries, rode Devan Downey's routinely spectacular play to a historic victory. Downey shot poorly but still scored 30 points, which was about his average in league play (31.6 ppg).

"My thinking all year long has been, if it's close, we have No. 2," South Carolina Coach Darrin Horn said of Downey. "We have a shot."

Its ambitions for an unbeaten season gone, UK fell to 19-1 overall and 4-1 in the Southeastern Conference.

The Cats lost despite DeMarcus Cousins tying a career high of 27 points, pulling down 12 rebounds and blocking three shots.

"If he doesn't play, we lose by 20," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said of Cousins. "Hats off to South Carolina. They deserved to win. They outworked us."

Downey scored 17 of his points in the second half as South Carolina improved to 12-8 overall and 3-3 in the SEC. He broke the last tie — 51-51 — with a jumper off an inbounds. Fouled on the shot, the three-point play started a run of seven straight points that proved decisive.

Calipari noted that Downey would not have had a chance to score had UK grabbed the initial rebound. That seemed fitting on a night South Carolina outrebounded UK 44-40 and enjoyed a 22-9 advantage in second- (and third-) chance points.

"I was begging every timeout," Calipari said of his plea for better rebounding. "What it meant was South Carolina was working harder than we were working."

Kentucky led 29-26 at the end of a first half that featured a defensive duel (if you saw it as take-it-personally intensity) or misguided offense (five assists and 18 turnovers by the two teams).

South Carolina came into the game ranked 11th of 12 SEC teams in rebound margin. UK ranked second.

"I'm shocked," Horn said. "Our goal is to not get murdered."

UK led almost the entire first half but could not separate itself from South Carolina. Hounded (and sometimes draped) by a revolving door of UK defenders, Downey made three of 12 shots before intermission en route to a 9-for-29 shooting night. More than once, he was forced by the shot clock to get rid of it.

But Downey compensated by getting to the foul line, where he made 10 of 11 free throws.

Asked why Downey delivered in the clutch, Horn smiled and said, "Because the (game) clock was going down. His great quality is his heart. The kid has tremendous, tremendous heart and will to win."

That's usually Kentucky's ace in the hole. But this time South Carolina was the better team in the clutch.

Noting UK's knack for pulling out close games, Calipari said, "Other teams we did that to couldn't do" what South Carolina did.

Darnell Dodson's steal and driving dunk gave Kentucky its largest lead at 29-22 and prompted a South Carolina timeout with two minutes left.

This two minutes probably needed a warning — or viewer-discretion notice. The Cats committed two turnovers in their final two possessions to help South Carolina close to within 29-26 at the break.

With about five minutes left, a sign that this might not be Kentucky's night flashed through the arena. Trailing 51-49, Dodson stole the ball from Brandis Raley-Ross and drove for a would-be dunk. One problem: Dodson lost control of the ball on the way up.

Another sign came with the score tied at 51. With two seconds on the shot clock, Downey took an inbounds pass and scored from the right baseline while being fouled by DeAndre Liggins. The three-point play put South Carolina ahead 54-51 with 4:13 left. It signaled the beginning of the end of UK's dreams of an undefeated season. The No. 1 ranking, achieved only a day earlier, might have been lost, too.

"No. 1 is not a championship," Cousins said. "We're playing for a championship."

Meanwhile, South Carolina took pride in proving most observers wrong.

"Be honest," Downey said. "No one gave us a chance."

That included Obama, not that Downey wanted to crow like Cocky the mascot.

"I'm scared to say anything," he said. "That's the president. Somebody might be knocking on my door in the morning."

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