Seldom has Rupp Arena seen a game so filled with pronounced momentum swings, stars either injured or sidelined and a player scoring a career high.
Despite the many diversions, the destination was same-old, same-old: Kentucky in first place and in charge of the Southeastern Conference.
Kentucky beat South Carolina 85-69 Saturday in a game that featured the league’s last two undefeated teams playing for first place.
This season’s star freshman point guard for UK, De’Aaron Fox, injured an ankle in the first half and needed crutches to get to the bench to watch the second half. When asked what UK lost with Fox sidelined, Malik Monk said, “Big leader. Energy, too. A lot of energy we’re losing.”
No one, including UK Coach John Calipari, said they knew the extent of Fox’s injury. Derek Willis said the Cats needed to adjust, just as they did to referees calling games tighter.
With Monk scoring 27 points, No. 5 Kentucky improved to 17-2 overall, 7-0 in the SEC and 3-2 against ranked opponents.
No. 24 South Carolina played without its point guard, PJ Dozier, who was sidelined by back spasms.
Maybe the absence of players normally controlling the ball led to game’s ups, downs and oddities. You want odd? For the first time in his UK career, Isaiah Briscoe did not score.
“He gave up his scoring abilities to give me the ball,” Monk said. “That’s a great leader … just a great teammate.”
For the first time this season, South Carolina lost a game in which its leading scorer played. That player, Sindarius Thornwell, scored a career-high 34 points, which surpassed his previous high set almost two years ago to the day (26 points at Georgia on Jan 22, 2014). That equaled the most scored by a UK opponent this season. North Carolina’s Justin Jackson also scored 34.
But Kentucky’s balanced attack prevailed. Bam Adebayo added 18, Derek Willis 12 and Wenyen Gabriel 11.
The first half was something of a three-act play. Kentucky dominated in Act 1. Kentucky had what’s becoming its familiar Freshman Moment (little chance of senior moments) in Act II. Then Thornwell became the leading man in Act III.
When the curtain went down at halftime, Kentucky led 47-38.
That score answered the question of who would dictate: Kentucky’s high-powered offense or South Carolina’s formidable defense.
Coming into the game, Kentucky ranked third in points (93.3), 15th in shooting (49.6). The Cats had made 50 percent or better in six straight games, which hadn’t happened since Joe B. Hall’s Final Four team of 1983-84 did it in eight games in a row.
South Carolina’s defense ranked fifth nationally in points allowed (59.4), second in field-goal percentage (36.3) and first in opponents’ three-point shooting accuracy (26.3 percent).
“They’re one of the best defensive programs not only in our league, but in college basketball,” Florida Coach Mike White said earlier in the week.
South Carolina opponents had averaged only 27.8 points in first halves. Kentucky passed that mark with 8:15 left.
The previous high in a first half against South Carolina (38 by Texas A&M) was eclipsed with 2:28 left.
Yet for all the Kentucky scoring, the nine-point halftime lead seemed well short of the potential bulge.
As the game began, Kentucky threatened to steamroll a South Carolina playing without Dozier, the team’s second-leading scorer (14.6 ppg) and leader in assists (52), steals (35) and baskets (96).
Kentucky scored the game’s first seven points. South Carolina, which had turnovers on four of its first five possessions, didn’t even get off a shot until a post-up basket with 16:30 left.
Kentucky’s lead reached double digits before the first television timeout and crested at 23-6 at the 11:27 mark.
“They came at us,” South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said. “We didn’t do a very good job of defending the basketball early in the game, and they just rolled us and kind of put us on our heels.”
Thornwell, the team’s leading scorer (18.2 ppg), would not get his first basket for four more minutes.
But just when a coronation rather than a competition seemed in the offing, Kentucky showed its lack of age. The Cats, who had two turnovers in the first nine minutes, gave up the ball five times in six possessions in a stretch that saw South Carolina go on a 12-0 run.
Thornwell scored his first basket on a driving dunk with 7:21 left. That began an avalanche of 17 points that kept Kentucky from assuring itself of victory before intermission.
The startling momentum shifts continued in the second half.
Kentucky called timeout 91 seconds into the second to try to halt South Carolina’s relentless encroachment. The Gamecocks got within 48-44 — the closest they’d been since Wenyen Gabriel’s three-pointer put UK up 7-0 with 18:39 left in the first half.
Two plays by Willis returned control to Kentucky. In a play sure to be on the season’s highlight video, Willis cut down the lane, took a pass from Dominique Hawkins and threw down a one-handed dunk over South Carolina’s Justin McKie.
Less than a minute later, Willis completed a fast-break by banking in a lob.
The Rupp crowd sounded pleased as South Carolina called time with 16:09 left to ponder a 55-44 UK lead.
South Carolina continued to compete. But Kentucky’s lead never dipped below eight points.
No. 5 Kentucky at Tennessee
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)