Frink

Alanzo Frink and the rest of South Carolina's big men had no answer for Kentucky Tuesday. AP/James Crisp

LEXINGTON, Ky. — Their big men shackled with fouls, their rebounding non-existent, the South Carolina Gamecocks led fifth-ranked Kentucky 22-20 with just under eight minutes to play in the first period. There was a brief thought.

If they could just hold on until the half, if they could stay in striking distance until they got their best player back …

The Wildcats haven’t won nine straight, including Tuesday’s 76-48 drubbing of USC, because they let such thoughts flourish. Kentucky ruthlessly and efficiently squashed any hope of a comeback by continuing to execute its game plan and the Gamecocks, who scored nine points in the first 11 minutes of the second half, meekly followed.

“Unfortunately, we continue to struggle with physicality. Any time we play a team that plays with physicality, we haven’t answered the bell this year, and that continued tonight,” coach Frank Martin said. “We got beat to loose balls, and rebounds, and it demonstrates our lack of physicality.”

The Gamecocks (11-11, 6-3 SEC) had a two-game lead for fourth place in the SEC going in so they weren’t going to slip from the spot they earned. But the loss, even to a team as talented and playing as well as the Wildcats, brought up the same issues that have plagued USC all season.

They aren’t going to win without Chris Silva on the floor. They are exceptionally weak on the glass, with the question of if it’s a problem with mental or physical toughness still unanswered. It doesn’t do any good to point out the amount of free throws the opponent shoots when USC can’t convert when it gets to the line.

They also won’t have to play Kentucky again in their final nine regular-season games, and the opportunity to still finish top-four in the league and thus have a better chance to make some noise in the SEC tournament is still very much alive.

“We can be 0-9, 9-0, that’s irrelevant to me,” Martin said. “I’m into getting better. We didn’t get better today.”

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* Tre Campbell scorched his first three 3-pointers and had 11 points 13 minutes into the game. He’s played much more confidently lately.

The problem was that after he rotated out to get a breather, he only scored one more point the rest of the way. “I should have just kept attacking,” he said.

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* USC allowed Georgia to grab 20 offensive rebounds Saturday. The Wildcats got 21, leading to 18 second-chance points.

“Our problem was on offensive rebounding,” said Silva, who had four boards after another night in foul trouble. “We have to hold each other accountable.”

* The Wildcats’ plan was to run right at USC in the post and to make their bigs stop them. It worked, as Silva had two fouls in the first four minutes and Alanzo Frink had two in the next four.

“We can’t run offense because our guys won’t screen, our guards won’t use the screens. We’re not strong enough to hold post-ups,” Martin said. “And we spent two days preparing for defending the low post. We weren’t very good at getting through screens and we were really bad at defending the low post.”

* Kentucky took control of the game with a 40-14 run. USC scored 20 points in the second half, and that was only due to three points against the Wildcats’ benchwarmers.

* Much has been made of the free-throw disparity USC has faced lately. It held true Tuesday, with Kentucky shooting 27 free throws to USC’s 14.

That brought the total of the last four road games to 116-53 in favor of the opponents. Yet the Gamecocks can’t complain too much about getting to the line if they don’t take advantage of it.

USC was 5-14 from the stripe.

Missing in action

Silva didn’t foul out but only had four points in 15 minutes. The Gamecocks can’t operate without him.

“Chris is going to get in foul trouble. It’s four years of it on the road against quality opponents,” Martin said. “I need to probably bring an extra suit when we go on the road so he can just sit on the bench and hold a clipboard.”

Coming up

The Gamecocks host Arkansas on Saturday.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.