COLUMBIA — It began with John Calipari being banished to the locker room, just two and a half minutes into the game. It ended with South Carolina’s home arena ringing with the chant of “Go Big Blue.”
In between, the Gamecocks saw their modest 13-game home winning streak demolished, and their momentary hold on first place in the SEC ripped away. Tyler Ulis scored 27, and No. 22 Kentucky dunked its way to an 89-62 blowout of South Carolina on Saturday in a sold-out Colonial Life Arena.
“They knew first place was at stake today, and they came in here to prove a point,” USC head coach Frank Martin said of Kentucky. “We didn’t do a good job of matching the energy, the discipline, the toughness you have to have to be able to be in first place at this time of year.”
The Wildcats did it without head coach Calipari, who was hit with two technical fouls and ejected just two minutes and 26 seconds into the game after a heated argument with officials. Kentucky responded by dominating the paint, shooting 50 percent in the second half, and handing USC its worst home loss under Martin.
“When you see your coach get tossed that early, you know he’s fighting for you,” Ulis said. “We just had to fight for him, and go out and try to win the game for him.”
Michael Carrera scored 25 to lead USC (21-4, 8-4 SEC), which entered the day tied with the Wildcats and LSU for first place in the conference. The Gamecocks dropped a game back after suffering their worst home loss since a 34-point setback to Kentucky in the final season under former head coach Darrin Horn.
“We just had a bad game,” Carrera said. “I think we had a bad game. We didn’t prepare well.”
It showed. Kentucky (19-6, 9-3) led by 15 at halftime, by 20 after Marcus Lee converted a Sindarius Thornwell turnover into a transition slam, and by 34 after Jamal Murray threw down another dunk with 7:03 remaining. The Wildcats’ size took away USC’s inside game, and USC couldn’t muster enough from the perimeter to pull them away from the basket.
“It’s Kentucky. They’re always going to have 7 -footers and really good players, but it was rough,” Carrera said. “We (wanted) to find a way to get in the paint and create fouls. That was our plan, to create fouls on them. I think we did that for a little bit. Then we stopped.”
Calipari was ejected for the second time in three games at USC, and turned his team over to associate head coach Kenny Payne. But the man really running the show for the Wildcats was Ulis, who finished one point short of tying his career high, and dished out 12 assists to help put four Kentucky starters into double-figures.
“I never touched on offense. Didn’t have to,” Payne said. “... Tyler Ulis ran the offense. Every now and then I may have interjected something. At the end of the day, it was his show.”
Calipari’s ejection clearly had an effect on his team. “I think it inspired them,” Carrera said. Payne said he didn’t know what set his boss off. Martin, who counts Calipari as a friend, said before last season’s game at USC, the Kentucky head coach was talking and joking around. But not this year.
“He was on edge in pre-game,” Martin added.
It only added to the energy in the sold-out arena, and in a game that wasn’t for the meek. Facing a USC squad Payne called “the most physical team in this conference,” Kentucky scored 22 points off 16 turnovers, added 34 more in the paint, and completely dictated the flow of the game.
“This game was about fight,” Payne added. “That team wanted to physically intimidate us. That team wanted to beat us up and show they’re superior to the way we play, that we’re soft. Well, we went out and fought ... and had success doing it.”
It was the third straight blowout win for Kentucky, which came to Columbia on the heels of a 19-point victory over Florida and a 34-point rout of Georgia. USC, meanwhile, finishes 2-1 in a three-game stretch against first-place teams, and tries to climb back into the mix beginning Tuesday at last-place Missouri.
“We’ll show up to school tomorrow (with a) big black eye,” Martin said. “That’s happened to me when I was a kid, you get punched in the face. Everyone knows you’re willing to fight for what’s yours, though. We’ll walk proudly with two big black eyes around school tomorrow, and we’ll line up Tuesday and play, and hopefully get back to the things we’ve been doing well for most of the year.”