Kentucky came close to proving it could win without reliable point guard play. But close in a season that figures to have a lot of nip-and-tuck was not good enough at South Carolina on Tuesday night.
As Coach John Calipari saw it, Kentucky lost 76-68 because the most inexperienced team perhaps in college basketball history was not up to the challenge. A taut possession-by-possession game required the kind of discipline and execution that UK’s players have not yet acquired.
“This looked like a bunch of freshmen playing like freshmen would play,” he said.
With Kentucky ahead by 14 with less than 12 minutes left, South Carolina Coach Frank Martin asked his players to out-steady the Cats.
“You’ve battled your tails off to get back in the game,” Martin said he told his players. “Now, let’s be disciplined and win the game. Our attention to detail was on point.”
UK’s was not.
A turning point came with Kentucky ahead 57-43. After losing the ball, Hamidou Diallo grabbed South Carolina’s Maik Kotsar.
South Carolina made the intentional foul call a three-point mistake. Kotsar made one of two free throws. Then with the resulting possession, Chris Silva posted up for a score.
And momentum and a raucous crowd announced as 16,210 were on South Carolina’s side.
“That kind of changed the whole complexion of the game,” UK’s leading scorer, Kevin Knox, said of the intentional foul.
South Carolina scored seven straight points to get back in the game.
Inside the final four minutes, Kentucky made only three of eight free throws. By contrast, South Carolina made eight in a row, and nine of 10 in that same time frame.
“This is another great example of we don’t know how to close games out,” Knox said.
The fix could start with players following the coaches’ instructions, he said, adding, “We weren’t listening to nothing the coaches were saying.”
The absence of solid point guard didn’t help, although Calipari downplayed that suggestion. “We had our chances to win anyway,” he said before adding a moment later, “I’ve never seen so many dumb fouls.”
Quade Green, the starting point guard in 13 previous games, sat out a third straight game because of a back strain. He did not even make the trip.
And Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had excelled in taking over for Green, equaled a season high of six turnovers and never got his driving game going.
Late-game wobbles did not cost UK victories against Texas A&M and Vanderbilt last week. But Calipari saw the loss at South Carolina as “a different situation.” This time, Kentucky had control.
“There’s an unwarranted arrogance that we get up, that we’re really good or ‘I’m really good,’” Calipari said. “And ‘I’m going to do what I’m choosing to do. I’m not going to listen to what you’re saying.’
“And that’s what happened.”
UK fell to 14-4 overall and 4-2 in the Southeastern Conference.
South Carolina improved to 12-6 overall and 3-3 in the SEC.
Florida at No. 18 Kentucky
8:15 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)