Date story published: Thursday, January 4, 1996
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina considered last night's game against No. 2 Kentucky a chance to grab the attention of the basketball world. Hey, we've completed our rebuilding phase. The Gamecocks are back.
Well, still back of UK, which made the more telling declarative statements. An 89-60 demolishing of South Carolina gave further evidence that:
Kentucky may be as good as its collective talent suggests.
South Carolina is not as far along in its basketball rebirth as its players believed.
Though clearly improved, Carolina still suffered the worst home loss in Coach Eddie Fogler's three seasons here. Had UK so intended, the loss would have broken the 27-year-old Carolina Coliseum record for most lopsided defeat of any Gamecock team (98-67 by Kentucky Dec. 13, 1976).
"I'm very excited about the way we played," UK Coach Rick Pitino said. "Physically, we played well. And mentally, it was about as cerebral as we've played in a long, long time. I don't know which was better: physical or mental."
Kentucky (10-1) needed to play smart because it was beginning Southeastern Conference play, Pitino said. League rivals know UK's system, so the Cats need to throw multiple options at the opponent to increase the element of surprise. UK went against form and pressed sparingly, played some 2-3 and 1-3-1 zones and pressed with and without traps.
"It was a lot to put in and the guys did it to perfection," Pitino said. "That's the type of defense I want to play: four or five changing defenses."
South Carolina (6-3) stayed with UK for a half. But the Cats went on separate runs of 11-1 and 19-0 in a smothering second half.
"We kind of looked shocked when they made the run," Fogler said of UK's 19-0 run. "Our team has some potential. It's obvious we have better athletes (than recent Carolina teams). But we're not collectively tough enough mentally and physically at this point to compete with Kentucky."
Tony Delk led Kentucky in the competitive first half and one-sided second. He scored 14 points in each half.
Led by Delk, Kentucky fought off an emotional Carolina first-half assault to take a 39-34 lead at intermission.
"In the first 10 minutes, you'll get a tremendous emotional effect from the crowd and team," Pitino said of UK's first game on the opponent's home court this season. "The way I judge a team is the way they play on the road. And I don't judge a team until the second half. That's when the offense and defense must go to a new level."
Delk, the Most Valuable Player in last week's Holiday Festival, seemed to find the most opportune times to score. The first of his four first-half three-pointers got Kentucky even for the first time, tying the score at 13 with 15:06 left. His second three-pointer gave Kentucky its first lead, 18-17, at the 11:33 mark.
Carolina converted its excitement into quality play early. With Larry Davis scoring eight quick points, the Gamecocks enjoyed their largest lead of the half, 11-4, less than three minutes into the game.
A flurry in the half's final 90 seconds gave Kentucky a 39-34 halftime lead. With the score tied at 32, Antoine Walker scored on a rebound to start a 7-0 run. He also had seven rebounds and two steals in the half.
A Kentucky victory became inevitable seven minutes into the second half. The Cats put together an 11-1 run to take a 56-39 lead with 13:20 left.
Delk (his fifth trey of the game) and Walker (two free throws) contributed to the breakout. So did freshman Ron Mercer, a first-half no-show (no points, rebounds, steals, assists or fouls). Mercer, who scored his first basket at the 17:17 mark, had four points in the run. He grabbed a rebound in traffic and hit a soft turnaround. His driving layup after a ball fake gave UK its 17- point lead.
South Carolina called a 20-second timeout with 13:12 left. It didn't make a dent in Kentucky's momentum.
After the Gamecocks closed the deficit to 58-47, Kentucky ran off 19 straight points. The run showed UK's versatility as well as its awesome talent. Delk and Mark Pope hit three-pointers. Epps slipped a nifty pass to McCarty for a layup. Derek Anderson stumbled toward a fastbreak layup, but Pope dunked the loose ball. McCarty blocked an outlet pass and fed Delk for a dunk.
"The second half was probably one I'd like to forget," Fogler said.