There are going to be games like this, where one of your better reserves shows up sick, when your outstanding point guard turns his ankle and can’t play the second half and you’re playing not just the best defensive team in your conference but one of the best defensive teams in the country.
Kentucky had one of those games Saturday.
The nation’s fifth-ranked team zipped out of the starting gate to a 17-point lead in the first nine minutes, survived a 34-point outburst from South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell, played better defense in the second half and beat the Gamecocks 85-69.
True, Frank Martin’s club was without one of its better players, 6-foot-6 wingman P.J. Dozier, who developed back spasms after a hard fall in practice Friday, but, hey, the Cats were missing a couple of pieces of their own.
First, sub Mychal Mulder turned up sick and unable to go. Then with about nine minutes to go in the first half, starting guard De’Aaron Fox limped off to the UK locker room. He returned for the second half in walking boot with a view from the bench.
“I don’t know,” said John Calipari when asked for specifics about the injury, but then the UK coach would rather undergo anther hip replacement than divulge details about injury. “They said there wasn’t any swelling.”
That’s the same Fox who might be the quickest guard in all the land. That’s the same Fox who saved Kentucky’s bacon Tuesday night in Starkville, scoring nine straight points as the Cats pulled out an 88-81 victory over Mississippi State. That’s the same Fox who is responsible for shifting the gears on offense, which you would think would be important going against what Ken Pomeroy’s numbers say is the best defensive team in the country.
It didn’t matter. South Carolina entered the game fifth in the nation in points allowed at 59.4 per game. Kentucky scored 85. South Carolina entered No. 2 in the nation in field goal percentage defense at 36.3 percent. UK shot 58.3 for the game. South Carolina entered first in the nation in three-point percentage defense at 26.3. UK made eight of 20 threes for 40 percent.
“We picked the wrong team to have a bad defensive game against,” Martin said.
No doubt Dozier’s presence would have helped the visitors on the defensive end. The sophomore is long and athletic and can cover the wing. Still, what Kentucky was able to accomplish at the offensive end, especially given Fox’s absence for nearly 30 of the game’s 40 minutes was impressive.
Credit Dominique Hawkins, who while Isaiah Briscoe struggled on his way to six first-half turnovers, took over the point and finished with seven assists compared to just two turnovers. As usual, Hawkins more than held his own on the defensive end.
Credit the four-spot (power forward) twins of Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis. Reversing their shared roles from last Tuesday, Gabriel got off to a hot start, scoring eight of UK’s first 13 points. Willis played closer, finishing with 12 points and seven rebounds and throwing down a poster-material, second-half dunk which he followed with a thunderous yell.
“I’ve never seen him dunk like that,” said Hawkins.
Let’s not forget Malik Monk, who made some extra work in the gym pay off with 27 points on 14 shots. He made nine of those shots, including four of seven from beyond the arc.
“I think we were more focused on defense and that brought us offense,” said the freshman afterward.
Oh yeah, defense. First half, South Carolina shot 52 percent. Second half, the Gamecocks shot 33.3 percent. Actually, with seven minutes left, the visitors were shooting just 28.6 percent for the second half.
So all around the nation, people will see the 16-point margin and figure par for the course. Kentucky was a 12-point favorite. The Cats are a top-five team playing at home. South Carolina is ranked 24th and the Gamecocks were on the road after a tough 57-53 win over Florida on Wednesday.
In reality, however, when you dig into the details, the win was more impressive than that, one of the more impressive wins of the season for a team now 17-2 overall, 7-0 in the SEC and a week away from a home date with second-ranked Kansas.
Said Hawkins, “We’re getting better.”
No. 5 Kentucky at Tennessee
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)