COLUMBIA, S.C. — After Kentucky's defense smothered the life out of another opponent's offense Saturday, South Carolina sophomore Sindarius Thornwell said that he and his teammates couldn't see how to score. Literally.
"Shooting over them, when they're jumping, all you see is their hands," he said.
Preventing another opponent from seeing the rim helped Kentucky win, this time 58-43.
South Carolina made its first shot: a floater by Thornwell, a member of the Southeastern Conference's All-Freshman team last season. Then the Gamecocks' shooting percentage steadily dwindled, settling at 22.6 percent. That marked the 10th UK opponent not to shoot with even 30-percent accuracy this season (Kansas, No. 11 in The Associated Press Top 25 poll last week, remains the most inept opponent at a look-away-I'm-hideous 19.6 percent).
The portion of the crowd rooting for South Carolina (maybe 60 percent) mostly sat silently as UK limited the home team to the second-fewest points in Frank Martin's three seasons as coach. Only a 75-36 loss at Florida on Jan. 30, 2013, saw fewer South Carolina points.
Martin, who lauded his team's grit and resolve, lamented its impatience in attacking a Kentucky defense which came into the game leading the nation in opponents' shooting accuracy (32.2 percent).
"I told my freshman point guard (Marcus Stroman) after the game, I told you for two days in practice: When they're set, if you drive them on the first or second pass, you're going to get swallowed up by size."
Stroman made one of seven shots. "He freaked out," Martin said.
What Thornwell suggested about a blind shot also applies to passes after a UK opponent penetrates and gropes to find an open teammate.
"You look one way, you've got a 7-footer," Martin said of a UK defender. "You look the other way, you got a guy 6-7. That's why they're good. Big at every spot."
South Carolina made only three of its first 22 shots in the second half as No. 1 Kentucky improved to 19-0. That tied Coach John Calipari's first UK team (2009-10) for the third-best start to a season in program history. Only the unbeaten Hagan-Ramsey Cats of 1953-54 (25-0) and Rupp's Runts (23-0 in 1965-66) got out of the gate faster.
Kentucky, now 6-0 in the SEC, did not rout South Carolina. A 40-28 rebounding edge helped the Gamecocks remain within shouting distance (if you've got leather lungs like UK halftime host Ryan Lemond).
Calipari noted that someone on his staff, he declined to throw that over-thinker "under the bus," suggested switching to a zone during the game. The UK coach said he quickly decided nothing about the Cats' defense needed fixing.
"We're not a team that tries to trick anybody," he said. "That's not what we do. We play. ... I didn't want to get away from who we are."
Kentucky blocked as many shots (nine) as South Carolina made from two-point range (nine of 43).
Defense fueled an unusual burst of fast-break basketball that propelled Kentucky to a 34-24 halftime lead. The Cats' 12 fast-break points were more than they'd scored in 12 previous games this season.
Kentucky limited South Carolina to five baskets in the first 14 minutes. Yet, UK led only 23-17. Thornwell's three-pointer — the only one the Gamecocks made in the first half — put Kentucky behind 24-23.
But UK finished strong. Fittingly, a fast-break layup by Tyler Ulis started an 11-0 UK run in the half's final 3:33.
Of his team going scoreless in the final 4:30 of the half, Martin said, "We got away from our thought process on defense."
South Carolina, which won only one of six previous games in which it trailed at the half, faced its largest halftime deficit of the season. The Gamecocks also trailed by 10 at halftime at Auburn last weekend.
One reason South Carolina has not been a come-from-behind team: The Gamecocks ranked last among SEC teams in three-point shooting (29.3 percent) in league games. Combined with Kentucky's defense, the only unknown remaining seemed to be the exact final score.
South Carolina scrapped. The Gamecocks limited UK to a season-low three offensive rebounds, which had been a foundation piece of UK's offense.
But Kentucky limited South Carolina to two baskets in the first 13:50 of the second half. That was two more than the Cats intended to surrender.
"It just goes with our team concept," Ulis said of the defense. "Shutting teams out."