COLUMBIA, S.C. — After Kentucky got the Southeastern Conference road victory it craved Saturday night by beating South Carolina 67-58, a reporter asked Darius Miller if he (finally?) displayed the kind of "demonstrated performance" Coach John Calipari repeatedly requests.
Calipari nodded in agreement as Miller laughed and said, "I hope so."
That prompted the UK coach to confirm what Miller's 18 points, which tied his career high against an SEC opponent, and five rebounds suggested.
"He was good today, boy," Calipari said. "He was good."
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So was Kentucky.
Having lost its last two league road games, UK put together as seamless a victory as it's had this season ... until the final four minutes.
"The execution to get up 10 was as good as it's been for this team," Calipari said.
UK led by 16 going into the final television timeout. That lead dwindled to five (61-56) with 1:15 left before Doron Lamb made both ends of two one-and-ones to seal the victory.
"The reason I was still coaching and getting on guys is because they didn't understand we could still lose the game," Calipari said of Kentucky's wobble to the finish line. "They didn't understand we could still lose the game. They're not veteran enough."
As it was, the Cats (15-4, 3-2 SEC) never trailed. South Carolina, which lost at home for only the second time in 12 games, fell to 12-6 overall and also 3-2 in the SEC.
Brandon Knight got much the better of it in the duel of highly regarded freshman point guards. He scored 23 points, which gave him double-digit points in 14 straight games.
Knight also joined John Wall, last year's sensation, with eight 20-point games as freshmen. At UK, only Patrick Patterson (nine) and Rex Chapman (nine) have had more.
Miller answered Calipari's call for more production from the team's few veterans. When UK expanded a 10-point halftime lead to 53-35 midway through the second half, Miller accounted for nine of the 17 points.
"Me, Josh (Harrellson) and DeAndre (Liggins) had a little discussion between ourselves yesterday," Miller said when asked about Calipari's call for more production from veterans. The trio talked about "stepping up," he said.
When asked what made the difference in his play, Miller hesitated. Calipari filled the dead air. "No fadeaways," the UK coach said. "That was the difference."
Miller's three free throws — not a huge number — equalled the number he'd taken in the last seven games.
"He was aggressive," Calipari said. "That's all I ask him to do. ... Today, he looked like one of the best players in our league, didn't you think? That's what I think he is."
Fellow junior Liggins, who missed all seven of his shots, also contributed. His defense limited South Carolina's leading scorer, point guard Bruce Ellington, to eight points, marking only the sixth time all season he's failed to reach double digits.
Kentucky limited South Carolina to four baskets in the final 15:18 of the first half. That enabled UK to roll to a 36-26 halftime lead.
In what might have been the best 20 minutes of the season, the Cats never trailed in the opening half. No doubt it helped that Ellington went to the bench with his second foul at the 10:24 mark.
That development typified how alert and ready Kentucky appeared. Liggins got back to take a charge on the fast-breaking Ellington to send him to the bench.
Without Ellington, South Carolina foundered. UK's defense led to two 35-second shot-clock violations and two air balls en route to a 32 percent shooting half for USC. By the end of the game, the Gamecocks took eight shots that did not hit the rim.
South Carolina had been synonymous with comebacks, rallying from 13 down against Vanderbilt and nine against Arkansas to win here.
But nothing in the early minutes of the second half suggested Kentucky should get nervous. South Carolina hit its nadir when the teams broke from the huddles at the first television timeout. The public address announcer told the crowd that Ellington had been hit with a technical foul.
Knight made both technical free throws to put Kentucky ahead 47-30.
But the Cats did not breeze to victory. True to form, if a bit late, South Carolina made a charge. Six straight points — highlighted by Ramon Galloway "posterizing" Harrellson with a fast-break dunk — reduced UK's lead to 12 (53-41).
After Knight missed an ill-advised floater rather than run more clock, South Carolina got within five (61-56) when Lamb fouled a three-point shooter. More than a minute remained.
"I wish I could have taken that back," Knight said of the shot. "Just a lack of focus."
Lamb and Jones made six of eight free throws in the final 50.7 seconds to make it academic.