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Date story published: Thursday, March 4, 2004

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- South Carolina had Senior Night.

Kentucky had Ashley Judd.

And, oh yeah, Cliff Hawkins, Erik Daniels, Chuck Hayes, Gerald Fitch, Kelenna Azubuike, Antwain Barbour, and others.

It wasn't even close. With their No. 1 fan and Broadway/cinema star in attendance for the first time this season, the Cats presented an ensemble cast last night to bury host South Carolina 84-65 before 18,000, the largest crowd ever to see a college basketball game in the state of South Carolina.

The Cats opened up a 16-point lead in the first half, then extended it to 29 (62-33) in the second.

"They just took us apart," South Carolina Coach Dave Odom said. "They beat us at every turn."

Hawkins, UK's senior point guard, was the second-half star. The Virginia native hit a career-high five three-pointers, on the way to a career-high 21 points, with 11 assists.

"I felt good," he said afterward. "I got the rhythm and the confidence going."

The Cats made a season-high 12 three-pointers in improving to 22-4 overall and 12-3 in the SEC. The Cats already have clinched the conference's East Division title. South Carolina dropped to 21-8 and 8-7.

The Gamecocks were playing without senior forward Rolando Howell, who was averaging nine points and five rebounds a game. The 6-foot-9 Howell broke his left wrist last Saturday.

Asked if Howell's absence was a factor, Odom said, "Our team didn't play well."

It was, however, Carolina's Senior Night, with the departing Gamecocks honored in a traditional pre-game ceremony. Plus, Odom's club had the revenge angle, what with Carolina having lost a 65-64 heartbreaker to Kentucky at Rupp Arena on Feb. 7.

Any resemblance that last night had to that game was brief. Very brief.

Kentucky dominated the first half, thanks in large part to a 17-2 run. Hawkins got the spurt started with a sharp pass to Sheray Thomas for a three-point play. By the time the run ended, with Bobby Perry sinking a three-pointer from the top of the key with 3:45 left in the half, Kentucky led 30-14.

"We turned it over five times in the first five minutes," Odom said. "You just can't put yourself in that kind of hole."

Kentucky's advantage was 38-24 at the intermission. Balance was the best part. Hawkins led Kentucky's first-half scorers with eight points. But Azubuike had six. Thomas, Daniels and Barbour each had five. Despite missing all four of his first-half free throws, Hayes had four points.

Kentucky's only first-half flaw came at the foul line. The Cats missed five of their first nine free throws, and ended the half making just seven of 13.

Meanwhile, South Carolina could not buy a basket. Not that it kept the Gamecocks from shooting. Carolina made just nine of 29 from the floor, including two of 11 from behind the three-point line.

At one point, the home team missed seven straight three-pointers before Carlos Powell finally broke the string by nailing a triple from the top of the key with 2:31 left. (Powell scored 11 first-half points.)

Nor could the Gamecocks hold on to the basketball. They wilted under the Kentucky pressure, committing 12 first-half turnovers.

The Gamecocks' 6-foot-7 freshman Renaldo Balkman, averaging seven points and five rebounds off the bench, picked up his third foul with 10:20 to go in the first half.

Carolina did make a second-half run, scoring 12 straight points to slice a 63-35 Kentucky lead to 63-47 with 8:02 remaining. It was, however, too little, way too late.