John Clay

Cats won't get better till they play smarter

John Clay
John Clay

Devan Downey hit the winning shot, a heart-stop step-back with 3.2 seconds left to give Darrin Horn a homecoming grin and South Carolina a 78-77 win Saturday afternoon in Rupp Arena.

But that's not where South Carolina won it.

Kentucky's Jodie Meeks missed a just-inside-half-court heave at the buzzer that sent a furious Billy Gillispie right past Horn in pursuit of the departing officials as the Gamecocks danced in celebration.

But that's not where Kentucky lost it.

Here's your dividing line: The Cats are up 58-50 with 13:03 remaining. The dynamic duo is in full dazzle. After a foul-plagued first half, Meeks is popping in points. Patrick Patterson is patrolling the paint. Together, they've scored all of the Cats' 21 second-half points. The scoreboard is starting to show separation.

And then it comes, like an all-too-familiar wave.

Turnover. Missed shot. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover. Turnover.

Six Kentucky possessions. Five Kentucky turnovers. Four in succession.

Instead of going for the throat, the Cats knotted their own noose. By the time the seas had calmed, South Carolina had swept to a 63-58 lead. The game's outcome slipped into doubt. The kind of outcome decided by players making plays.

"We have guys who can make plays," said Horn.

Smart plays.

And for a 36-year-old, the Tates Creek grad has proven wise beyond his years, smart enough to take the talent he inherited from predecessor Dave Odom and steer it toward its strengths. No tear-them-down and build-them-up here. Just penetration. Pitch. Hit the open three. Crash the boards.

If you're South Carolina, that's how you snare 18 offensive rebounds. Twin that with 21 Kentucky turnovers, that's how you end up with a stunning 28 more shots. In the end, that's how you watch the opponent make 52.1 percent of its shots and you still lasso your first win in Rupp Arena since 1997.

"They were tougher than us, smarter than us," Gillispie said.

Toughness is the Kentucky coach's go-to guy, of course. His rock-solid belief. You can certainly chalk up some of Carolina's clutch glass-eating to a lack of steel on the UK end, but you have to also wonder if a team that tries to block every shot (aka the Cats) doesn't leave itself out of proper position when it comes to protecting the boards. It's a thought.

But basketball smarts is his team's true soft spot. Too many sloppy passes. Too many missed connections. Too many forced drives into snarled traffic. All of which we've seen before.

Saturday marked the ninth time this season the Cats have turned the ball over at least 20 times. (Last year's club eclipsed that total five times. All season.) You can't beat a good team turning the ball over 21 times. You especially can't beat a good, smart team when you turn it over 21 times.

"We've taken two major steps backwards," said Gillispie.

"We ain't winning the games we need to be winning," said Patterson.

There was the blind-side Tuesday at Ole Miss. Now comes this home-floor gut-punch. A perfect 5-0 Kentucky start has given way to a 5-2 record and a divisional logjam. South Carolina proved it can swing some heavy wood. Its second win in Lexington in 23 tries is an SEC shout-out. The Gamecocks are as confident as the Cats are confused.

Saturday, they and their coach were as happy as the home team was upset.

"It doesn't sit well with me," said Gillispie.

But, as the coach said Friday, mad doesn't get it done.

Yes, Kentucky could play tougher.

But it has to play smarter.