UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Cats stepped up big time

Darius Miller took a shot over Damontre Harris during the first half. Miller equaled a career high in conference play with 18 points for the Cats and grabbed five rebounds.
Darius Miller took a shot over Damontre Harris during the first half. Miller equaled a career high in conference play with 18 points for the Cats and grabbed five rebounds.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — It's the South Carolina student section that refers to itself as the "Garnet Army," a military-style mob outfitted in garnet, beige and black camouflage gear.

But Saturday night at the Colonial Life Arena, it was visiting Kentucky that answered the call of duty.

After Tuesday's loss at Alabama left John Calipari's team 2-2 in the league with two road losses — never mind the flap over what came out of Calipari's flapper toward one of his players in Tuscaloosa — the Cats couldn't afford to drop another conference game this early, not another road game to a divisional rival.

So the Cats picked it up, all the Cats, to dominate host South Carolina on the way to a key 67-58 win.

In fact, given the circumstances, and what was at stake, it was Kentucky's most impressive performance of the season.

"I felt like we would play well today," Calipari said. "I didn't know how South Carolina would play, but I thought we would play well."

Why?

"I just had the feeling," he said.

And play well they did.

"Everybody stepped up," Terrence Jones said.

Everybody in blue.

There was Darius Miller playing the best game of his year, maybe his career, scoring 18 points, hitting seven of 12 shots, taking the ball not to the goal, but through the goal.

"When Darius plays like that, he's the best player in the conference at his position," said Jones.

There was point guard Brandon Knight scoring 23 points, knocking down nine of 10 free throws. Never mind the five turnovers. The freshman made up for that with seven rebounds.

There was Jones, throwing down back-to-back dunks early to set the tone, even if he later landed on the ball after a dunk, tweaking his left ankle.

There was DeAndre Liggins, shutting down South Carolina point guard Bruce Ellington to the point where in the second half the freshman tossed the ball at Liggins during a timeout, which cost Ellington a technical and his fourth personal foul.

"He did a great job of locking (Ellington) down, of taking him out of the game," Miller said. "I thought that was the main part of the win."

Indeed, Liggins' lock-down set the tone for what was UK's best defensive performance of the season.

South Carolina made just 33.3 percent of its shots, not because of one horrid half. Darrin Horn's team made just 32 percent the first half, 34.4 the second. Carolina took 18 three-pointers. It hit three.

"Defensively," admitted Calipari, "I thought we were pretty good."

There was even Jarrod Polson, the sparsely used freshman, former walk-on, coming off the bench to chip in three important minutes in a pair of stints.

"Did you see him drive the ball and try and make a layup," said Calipari afterward with a big smile. "It was like, 'Yeah, I belong.' "

Some were wondering if Kentucky really belonged among the nation's best after that 68-66 loss at Alabama, the game in which all the post-game attention went to the words that came from Calipari's blown gasket.

But a larger question was whether this young team really had the fire and desire to buckle down and beat a good team on the road.

"We really needed to show we could win on the road," Jones said. "Just prove to ourselves and give ourselves confidence that we can do this. Just to fight, and make our coaches proud, and just give everybody a reason to have fun on a Saturday night."

That got quite the laugh from the attentive media.

"They want to please me," Calipari said afterward. "And I'm hard on them."

We know. There's video evidence of that.

But now, after Saturday, there's evidence that Calipari's Cats can answer the call.

"We played," Jones said, "the way we should have been playing."

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