Date story published: Wednesday, February 5, 1997
COLUMBIA, S.C. - Hootie and the Blowfish schmoozed with Dick Vitale before taking their seats. Heisman Trophy winner George Rogers came onto the court to lead second-half cheers.
South Carolina trotted out every Palmetto State icon except Strom Thurmond in what locals billed as the biggest basketball game here in more than 30 years.
The game lived up to that billing. Led by its trio of standout guards, No. 19 South Carolina prevailed in overtime, 84-79.
But there were no losers. Despite playing without Derek Anderson and Jared Prickett, and with only eight scholarship players, Kentucky summoned the will to erase an 11-point second-half deficit.
"I thought our guys played a great game," UK Coach Rick Pitino said. "(South Carolina) played a little better. It was a great college basketball game. It really was."
Sophomore BJ McKie had the pivotal basket. His spinning drive past Allen Edwards gave the Gamecocks an 82-79 lead to nurse in the final seconds of overtime.
Thoughts of South Carolina guards driving to the basket probably haunted Kentucky on its way home. Point guard Melvin Watson's driving layup with 28 seconds left in regulation sent the game into overtime.
"Our guards were terrific," South Carolina Coach Eddie Fogler said before adding a tribute to UK. "Boy, did they play good. And they made some shots."
The loss snapped Kentucky's 28-game winning streak against Southeastern Conference Eastern Division opponents. The Cats' last loss to a divisional rival came here in 1994. No. 3 UK fell to 20-3 overall and 8-2 in the league.
South Carolina improved to 16-5 overall and 10-0 in the SEC.
Kentucky seemingly had the game to win at the end of regulation. The Cats led 74-69 with barely a minute left. Then one of South Carolina's guards, Larry Davis, hit a three-pointer off the dribble with 1:04 left.
"We should have won the game," Pitino said before quickly correcting himself. "I should say we could have won the game."
After Watson's tying basket, UK got a potential game-winning, low-percentage shot at winning in regulation. Ron Mercer, who led the Cats with 18 points, missed a contested 18-footer bounced off the rim.
Kentucky trailed by 11 with barely more than six minutes left.
Then when its offense seemed hopelessly muddled, the Cats arose. A 10-0 run in the next minute got UK back into the game.
As Pitino suggested Monday, Kentucky took on a new look. With only eight scholarship players available, the Cats mixed man-to-man and zone defenses, and pressed on only a handful of South Carolina possessions.
Although the method was radically different, the outcome stayed the same. Playing its customary up-tempo, pressing game, UK had trailed only twice at halftime this season. The Cats led South Carolina 37-32 at the break.
"With the exception of the first four minutes of the second half, which cost us the game, we executed," Pitino said. In the first four minutes "we didn't screen. We were lethargic."
As has been the case in the post-Derek Anderson portion of Kentucky's season, the Cats got a solid contribution from an unlikely source. This night it was Jamaal Magloire. The freshman center from Canada had not scored in three of UK's previous five games, yet his eight first-half points trailed only Mercer's nine in the first half. Magloire's most memorable score was a sweeping left-handed shot that banked home.
As Kentucky had hoped, the Cats stayed out of foul trouble. UK was whistled for only eight fouls in the half. South Carolina, which had averaged 27.2 free-throw attempts per SEC game, took only 11 in the half.
South Carolina made the first momentum play of the second half. With UK ahead 39-32, Nazr Mohammed turned for a low-post shot. Larry Davis surprised Mohammed with help defense and blocked the shot. The block led to a BJ McKie fast-break layup, which started a 6-0 Gamecock run. Davis completed the run with a fast-break dunk that brought South Carolina within 39-38.
Anthony Epps stemmed the tide. He drove to the basket and somehow snuck a shot under the tall timber while being fouled. His three-point play put UK up 42-38 with 15:57 left.
Another blocked shot ignited another South Carolina charge. This time William Gallman blocked Mercer's driving attempt. The Gamecocks came down and worked for a Gallman dunk.
After UK turned it over on a Mercer charge, Carolina took its largest lead. Center Nate Wilbourne rebounded his own miss and scored while being fouled by Magloire. The three-point play gave the Gamecocks their largest lead to that point: 46-44 with 13:08 left.
Kentucky continued to avoid excessive fouls. The Cats did not pick up their first until the 14:43 mark. Then they game in bunches. Unfortunately for UK, Mercer picked up two fouls - his third and fourth of the game - in a 90-second span. A push on the post and a charge sent Mercer to the bench with 12:24 left.
Mercer's absence no doubt contributed to Kentucky's floundering offense.
The Cats went almost seven minutes without a basket. After Epps' clutch shot with 15:57 left, UK did not get another basket until Edwards' finger-roll layup with 9:14 left.
Kentucky missed the front end of two one-and-ones during the stretch that saw South Carolina go on a 17-4 run. UK's offensive nadir came with Edwards' inbounds pass went through Scott Padgett's legs out of bounds.