LEXINGTON, Ky. — Julius Mays’ 15 points led five Kentucky players in double figures, and the Wildcats blew out South Carolina, 77-55, on Tuesday night to move within a game of first-place Florida in the Southeastern Conference.
The Wildcats (16-6, 7-2) had their fourth straight victory and perhaps most complete in conference play as they shot 27 of 44 from the field and outrebounded USC, 42-25. Kentucky’s 61-percent shooting was its third-highest this season.
“We just got out of their way and let them practice their dunking,” Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said of Kentucky’s offense.
Willie Cauley-Stein and Archie Goodwin each added 13 points, Ryan Harrow had 12 and Nerlens Noel 10 along with 10 rebounds and five blocks.
Freshman forward Michael Carrera scored a game-high 18 points with six rebounds for South Carolina (12-10, 2-7), which lost its third in a row and fifth in the past six games.
The Gamecocks have found the going rough in the first half of their SEC schedule, with their only league victories coming against LSU and Arkansas. They entered Tuesday having lost four of their past five games, including Saturday’s defeat to Georgia.
Shooting and rebounding have been the obvious culprits for South Carolina in those recent losses. The Gamecocks haven’t shot above 37 percent and have been outrebounded by a 152-127 margin in the four defeats.
Those numbers toughened South Carolina’s mission at Rupp Arena, where it hasn’t won since 2009. Especially since Kentucky entered the game leading the SEC in defensive rebounds (27.6), second in field goal defense (39 percent) and third in rebounding margin (plus-3.5) in league play.
Noel has been a big part of that, leading the nation in blocks (4.6 per game) and the SEC with 9.8 rebounds in league play.
South Carolina made just 29 percent from the floor (17 of 59).
Wildcats coach John Calipari has wished teammates would be as fierce as Noel. Despite their recent surge, the coach has lamented his team’s lack of toughness, especially with the ball after Kentucky committed a season-worst 19 turnovers in an overtime win at Texas A&M.
That Wildcats’ weakness left them trailing 18-17 after 9:38 when they had a chance to exploit the Gamecocks’ early inaccuracy. South Carolina missed its first five shots before Michael Carrera’s putback 4:06 in, cutting Kentucky’s lead to 11-4.
A 14-7 run over the next 6:32 gave the Gamecocks their only lead, a turnaround helped by seven Wildcats’ turnovers through 10 minutes. Kentucky quickly regrouped with 11 straight points and closed the half with a 28-6 run.
Harrow and Goodwin, two players Calipari said needed to step up, each scored 10 points as the Wildcats were a white-hot 15-of-22 shooting (68 percent) in the first half.
Noel meanwhile had four blocks to extend shooting woes for South Carolina, which shot just 9 of 32 (28 percent) by intermission.
The Gamecocks never got closer than 15 in the second half.