COLUMBIA, S.C. — It might have been difficult for Kentucky to put a positive spin on the 72-67 loss at South Carolina on Saturday. But UK was up to the challenge.
"We know what we can do," Aaron Harrison said in the post-game news conference setting. "It's going to be a great story."
When asked what he meant, Harrison added, "We know we can make a run, and it'll be a great story for everyone to talk about."
A reporter asked teammate James Young, who sat next to Harrison, if he agreed with the loss serving as a mere prelude to something great.
"Yeah," Young said. "Definitely."
Assistant coach John Robic, who substituted for John Calipari in the post-game news conference, also used the word "great" to describe the game. He noted Kentucky's resolve. The Cats trailed by as many as 16 points as late as the 9:54 mark of the second half, and by double-digits with barely seven minutes left.
Yet, Kentucky got within one with 22 seconds left and forced South Carolina to clinch with 4-for-4 free-throw shooting.
"Our guys played great," Robic said. "They fought. They didn't give up. We didn't start the way we wanted, but they showed some toughness in the end."
UK coaches have been stressing the positive in recent weeks. On a recent radio call-in show, they linked their can-do words to building and maintaining player confidence.
Calipari echoed the sentiment in a statement released by UK shortly after Robic, Harrison and Young left the news conference.
"Proud of the guys for not giving up, but we all have to figure out what do we each have to do to get this team right," he was quoted as saying. "We have to continue to believe in ourselves and each other, and I know our fans are fighting with us."
Robic danced around questions about Calipari's two technical fouls and ejection.
When asked what led to Calipari's technicals, Robic said, "You'd have to ask him."
A moment later he added, "I guess a call or two didn't go our way here and there. But it had nothing to do with (the outcome). It was our team's performance. As coaches and players, we have to own up to it."
Calipari did not appear in the news conference to explain.
When asked why Calipari did not come, Robic said, "I don't know. You'll have to ask him."
When asked why he was answering questions, Robic said, "They told me to come in here."
Robic bristled slightly when asked whether the technical fouls and ejection represented a coach abandoning a freshman-dependent team in a time of need. "I'm not going to answer that," he said.
Robic dismissed the notion of Calipari's ejection serving as a catalyst for UK's rally.
"Nah, I don't think you can say that," he said. "I thought we played hard (throughout the game). We didn't make shots."
Calipari's ejection came with 10:23 left and Kentucky trailing 51-39. Momentum was on UK's side as the Cats had reduced a 16-point deficit to 12 inside 90 seconds.
Brenton Williams made both technicals, part of his 11-for-12 night at the line, and South Carolina scored on the ensuing possession.
"I think those came up pretty huge," Williams said of the three technical fouls called on Kentucky. Williams, who leads the nation in free-throw accuracy, made all six technical free throws.
Calipari had been ejected from one other game as UK coach. Referees tossed him from a victory over Mississippi Valley State on Dec. 18, 2010.
Robic to rescue
UK's volatile relationship with referees Mike Nance, Kevin Fehn and Tim Gattis nearly boiled over into something ugly in the second half. Alex Poythress intercepted an inbounds and tried to call timeout as he flew over the end line. The referees' decision not to reward the timeout, thus returning possession to South Carolina, prompted UK strength coach Ray "Rock" Oliver to rise off his seat on the bench and take a step toward the court.
Oliver made eye contact with Robic, who told him quietly but firmly, "Don't do that."
Oliver returned to his seat.
The crowd of 15,303 marked a season high for South Carolina. The previous high was 14,302 for a game against Ole Miss.
When saluting the crowd's enthusiasm, South Carolina Coach Frank Martin said, "I didn't just feel it today. ... If we do our part, we'll have the best fans in college basketball."
The crowd rushed the court after the final buzzer. The Southeastern Conference rule against fans rushing the court mandates a fine.
South Carolina last paid such a fine after its fans rushed the court to celebrate a 68-62 victory over then No. 1 Kentucky on Jan. 26, 2010.