Date story published: Wednesday, February 16, 2005
COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes called last weekend's lackluster victory over Georgia a "lesson-learning game."
A 73-61 loss at South Carolina last night showed the Cats have yet to learn those lessons.
Two familiar bugaboos, poor free-throw shooting and questionable shot selection, doomed UK. "We're not playing like we're capable of playing right now," guard Patrick Sparks said. "It caught up to us in this type of environment."
Kentucky, which hoped to make amends for the Georgia game, instead suffered its first double-digit loss to a Southeastern Conference team in almost three years (curiously enough, South Carolina beat UK by 13 in the 2002 SEC Tournament).
Its season-high nine-game winning streak snapped, UK fell to 19-3 overall and 10-1 in the league.
South Carolina, which billed the game its do-or-die opportunity to validate NCAA Tournament worthiness, finally got over a psychological hump. The Gamecocks, who had come close each time but lost their four earlier games against ranked teams, improved to 14-8 overall and 6-5 in the SEC.
UK Coach Tubby Smith saluted South Carolina's effort while lamenting his team's season-high 21 turnovers and season-low 18 baskets.
"You're not going to beat many people with 21 turnovers," he said, "and when you get slaughtered in the paint like we did."
Kentucky played hard. But three times South Carolina delivered a mental thunderbolt by blocking UK fast-break opportunities.
Questionable shots and just nine assists, which equalled a season low, compounded a night of frustration.
"We suck passing the ball," Smith blurted out.
Tarence Kinsey made a career-high five three-pointers and scored 17 points for South Carolina. "I knew that was a tough matchup," said Smith, referring to Sparks, who was seven inches shorter, having to guard Kinsey.
UK, which shot 35.3 percent, got 16 points from Kelenna Azubuike. However, Hayes did not make a basket and finished with one point (a free throw at the 16:39 mark of the first half).
"We're not much without him," Smith said of UK's senior leader. "That's pretty obvious. He's kind of our heart and soul. When his heart and soul are not right, we've got some problems."
Turnovers hurt Kentucky. The Cats committed 11 in the opening 20 minutes (or more than they had in five previous games). "A red flag," Smith said.
Throw in the usual free-throw problems (four of eight in the half and 19 of 29 in the game) and UK had much to overcome.
South Carolina met its biggest pre-game goal: Limit UK's transition game. The Cats didn't get a fast-break opportunity until barely seven minutes remained in the half. It yielded no points because South Carolina's Renaldo Balkman hustled back to block Rajon Rondo's fast-break layup.
Kinsey, who had eight first-half points, gave South Carolina its 25-23 halftime lead by hitting a three-pointer inside the final 20 seconds.
Kentucky tied the score inside the first 10 seconds of the second half. Rondo jumped high and slam a lob pass from Sparks.
Despite the play, South Carolina seized the initiative in the next four minutes. Twice in that span, the Gamecocks blocked fast-break opportunities. Antoine Tisby, who equalled a career-high with 13 points, rejected Randolph Morris' layup. On UK's next possession, South Carolina point guard Tre' Kelley rared back and swatted away Sparks' fastbreak layup.
When South Carolina worked patiently and Kinsey swished a three-pointer (tying a career high of four), UK called time with 15:41 to ponder a 34-26 deficit.
Eventually, South Carolina went on a 16-4 run to establish a 41-29 lead with 13:30 left.
UK went small, a tactic in earlier second-half comebacks. In the search for a hot hand, the Cats tried senior Josh Carrier. That marked his first appearance since the LSU game on Jan. 22.
Kentucky crept within 44-38 at the 10:06. Free-throw shooting kept UK from getting closer. Morris and Hayes missed the front end of two straight one-and-ones, making UK 10-for-20 from the line with nine minutes left.
UK got within 50-45 when Ravi Moss made a fast-break layup at the 6:52 mark. But the Cats went scoreless for nearly the next four minutes. In that span, Sparks took an ill-advised 25-footer early in the possession and the Cats got caught on a 35-second shot clock violation after a television timeout.
UK's questionable shots steadied South Carolina. The Gamecocks scored the next eight points, six by Powell, to build a 58-45 lead to protect in the final four minutes.
Illness caused Sheray Thomas to stay home. UK did not want to risk spreading the virus through the team, spokesperson Mandy Polley said.