LEXINGTON, Ky. -- One open 3-point shot caught only the rim. The next one didn't fall either. The third, taken with 21 seconds left on the shot clock and 1:13 remaining in the first half, proved errant as well. And those three missed 3s by South Carolina point guard Bruce Ellington in the final 2:36 of the half Saturday were just the opportunities Kentucky needed to pull away.
Teams as talented as these Wildcats rarely fail to seize such opportunities. That stretch wasn't the sole reason second-ranked Kentucky beat USC, 79-64, in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams, but the Gamecocks were never really in the game after that.
USC (8-7) trailed 23-18 with 4:09 left in the first half at Rupp Arena. Then Kentucky (15-1) went on an 11-0 run to close the half and led by at least 12 points for the rest of the game. The Wildcats converted Ellington's missed 3s into a layup, two made free throws and a trey.
The misses underscored a rough afternoon for Ellington, USC's leading scorer last year and No. 2 scorer through his seven games this season, since he transitioned from playing football. He scored eight points (1.4 fewer than his average this year), but shot 3 of 13, including 1 of 8 on 3s.
"I don't know that they were bad shots," USC coach Darrin Horn said of Ellington's 3s late in the first half. "I think they were bad shots for the time, when we were trying to finish the half. A couple of them were probably pretty open looks. The challenge is understanding that in that situation, when we're trying to finish the half strong, we'd rather drive the basketball than to take a pull-up 3."
Said Ellington: "It gave them a big momentum shift. Some of them, I thought I could make them. That's not good for the team. I've got to just play my role."
But there were plenty of positive signs for the Gamecocks on Saturday, as they faced the tremendous challenge of trying to upset a team that has now won 45 consecutive home games (college basketball's longest active streak) and has five starters who are projected to be picked in the top 19 of this year's NBA draft by NBADraft.net.
USC won the second half, 46-45, by shooting 53.1 percent (compared to 25 in the first half) and making 5 of 12 3s, compared to 1 of 10 in the first half. Freshman shooting guard Damien Leonard, who again came off the bench, scored 12 of his team-best 15 points after halftime.
Reserve forward RJ Slawson grabbed six rebounds in the game (including five of USC's 16 offensive boards) against a freakishly long front court. And Ellington had four assists and zero turnovers while playing against perhaps the nation's best defensive team.
3-Point Goals -- USC 6-22 (Leonard 3-6, Slawson 1-1, Smith 1-2, Ellington 1-8, Gill 0-1, Cooke 0-2, Richardson 0-2); Kentucky 5-11 (Lamb 2-3, Teague 1-1, Jones 1-2, Wiltger 1-2, Kidd-Gilchrist 0-1, Miller 0-2). Steals -- USC 8 (Gill 3); Kentucky 4 (Davis 2). Blocks -- USC 3 (Harris 2); Kentucky 8 (Davis 7). Turnovers -- USC 12 (Leonard 3); Kentucky 15 (Joens 4). A--24,219.
"That's probably more impressive, playing against this kind of defense, not having played consistently for the last six months, than whether he made shots or not," Horn said.
If the Gamecocks play that well in their next two games - Tuesday against Vanderbilt, Saturday against Florida, both at home - they will put themselves in position to contend. No. 14 Florida certainly looked plenty human while losing by nine at 7-7 Tennessee on Saturday.
The same cannot be said of Kentucky freshman forward Anthony Davis, who is 6-10, with a 7-4 wingspan that makes him look taller. He didn't lead the Wildcats in scoring Saturday - Terrence Jones had 20 - but Davis' 12 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks changed the game.
He now has 74 blocks this season - 10 shy of breaking the school's single-season record. Some enterprising Kentucky fans have already honored him, and his uni-brow, by designing shirts that read "FEAR THE BROW," with a cartoon pair of eyes and a dark uni-brow above the words.
The Gamecocks have no designs on such celebrity status, though they surely wouldn't mind it. They are just trying to survive their brutal first eight SEC games, and Horn at least sounded confident Saturday when he said, "We have an SEC team in terms of ability."
Saturday's second half, especially, left the Gamecocks feeling just as optimistic as their coach about their potential.
"Now we know that we can score against anybody and play with anybody," Leonard said. "And we'll build on this."
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