COLUMBIA, S.C. — Kentucky big man Patrick Patterson saluted Devan Downey as the "X factor" in South Carolina's 77-59 victory over the Cats Wednesday night.
"When he has the ball in his hands, magic happens," Patterson said.
Downey and his teammates certainly made Kentucky disappear in this competition for first place in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division.
Downey the magician had plenty of lovely assistants. South Carolina's unheralded front line led the Gamecocks to a school record 16 blocked shots. That combination of inside-outside excellence made UK's competitive spirit go — poof!
"I'm speechless," Downey said of the blocks. "It seemed like every time they threw it down low, we were starting a fast break."
At times, South Carolina toyed with Kentucky. With its most lopsided victory over a UK team, the Gamecocks improved to 9-4 in the SEC, and 20-6 overall.
Kentucky fell to 19-9 overall and 8-5 in the SEC. The Cats dropped into a second-place tie with Florida.
Sophomore Sam Muldrow led South Carolina's block party with a career-high seven. Dominique Archie equalled his career-high with four.
While noting that the stars shined as expected for both teams, South Carolina Coach Darrin Horn said, "I really think the 'bigs' were the difference. ... I challenged Sam last night in the film room. I don't know if I've ever had a player respond so well as Sam Muldrow did tonight."
South Carolina blocked eight shots in each half of a seamless performance. Kentucky never led and trailed by as much as 28.
Asked whether he'd ever seen so many blocked shots, UK's best shot blocker, Perry Stevenson said, "I have, but not since high school."
Patterson led Kentucky with 28 points, almost all meaningless in determining the outcome. The Cats trailed by at least 16 points over the final 25:38. Jodie Meeks added 18.
South Carolina dominated the first half, as reflected in a 46-28 lead at intermission. That marked Kentucky's second-largest deficit of the season. Only Miami's 46-26 lead after the first half had been greater.
The big lead was no fluke. With Downey at the trigger, South Carolina shot holes in UK's usually stout defense. The Gamecocks made 50 percent of their first-half shots against a defense ranked seventh nationally in limiting opponents' shooting accuracy.
"We didn't take it personal enough," UK Coach Billy Gillispie said of his team's inadequate defense.
If any position reflected the disparity in production this night, it was point guard.
Downey played with cool efficiency in dominating UK's point rotation of Michael Porter and DeAndre Liggins.
"You saw one (team) with one (point guard), and you saw one without," Gillispie said.
Porter had no assists and five turnovers in 11 fitful minutes. Liggins had seven assists (a career high against an SEC opponent), but he also missed all six of his shots and committed three turnovers.
When asked whether he went into the game sensing an advantage, an incredulous Downey said, "Are you serious? Every time, I think I'm the best point guard on the floor."
Downey, who had 21 points, five assists and five steals (and one turnover in 34 minutes), made his superiority show early and often. He penetrated and pitched to Archie for a three-pointer that put South Carolina ahead 12-6. The day before, Gillispie lamented that his team lacked a penetration-and-pitch guy to set up open shots.
Three minutes later, South Carolina had a five-shot trip downcourt. That reflected UK's struggle to complete its defense with rebounds.
Later, Downey picked the ball from Porter, one of the point guard's four first-half turnovers.
Gillispie sent in Liggins, who promptly threw a post feed too high for Patterson.
The nadir came after a Kentucky timeout with 5:51 left. Archie stole a Porter pass and drove to a layup.
Then Patterson missed a dunk.
The second half, if anything, continued the downward spiral. UK committed turnovers on its first three possessions. Particularly painful to watch was Downey again taking the ball from Porter and cruising to a layup. That sprung Liggins off the bench 64 seconds into the half.
Downey called it the most fun he's had in a game for South Carolina.
And he wasn't surprised.
"I always say, if we go out and play like we can play, we can beat teams by a pretty good margin," he said.