COLUMBIA – There was always a hand, there was always a body, there was always a future NBA player in the way. And as a result, there were too many South Carolina shot attempts that went everywhere expect through the rim.
USC’s offensive struggles were on display again Saturday, and this time against an opponent which left no room for error. Long, tall, and top-ranked Kentucky held the Gamecocks to just four made field goals in the second half, snuffing out any hopes of a repeat of last season’s upset and winning 58-43 before the first sellout crowd at 18,000-seat Colonial Life Arena in four years.
“It’s difficult when everybody down there is 7-foot,” said guard Sindarius Thornwell, who led the Gamecocks with 14. “… It’s tough shooting over the top of them. When you’re jumping, all you see is their hands.”
That much was evident in a game where USC suffered through prolonged offensive droughts, including a nearly 10-minute period spanning the halves without a field goal. The Gamecocks took a 24-23 lead on a Thornwell 3-pointer with 4:31 remaining in the half, but then went scoreless until the break, went without a field goal for nine minutes and 48 seconds, and managed just 19 points the remainder of the game.
South Carolina finished with 12 made field goals – as many as the Wildcats had in the first half.
“We’ve got to make some shots,” head coach Frank Martin said. “When you do get an opportunity against a team like Kentucky, you’ve got to make it. And we didn’t.”
The Wildcats (19-0, 6-0 SEC) didn’t exactly light it up, either. South Carolina’s defense held Kentucky 18 points below its scoring average, and allowed just six made field goals in the second half. But the Wildcats found other ways – shooting 19-of-27 from the free throw line, and getting 21 points off 12 USC turnovers – to keep a double-digit lead and maintain their quest for the first perfect season in men’s college basketball since Indiana in 1976.
“It was that kind of game,” said Wildcats coach John Calipari. “I didn’t want to get away from who we were. Everybody said, ‘It’s a good team to zone.’ Well, that’s not who we are. I don’t need to trick anybody. This is who we are.”
That would be a stifling man-to-man squad which avoided another upset in Columbia, where the Wildcats had lost three of their previous five. Devin Booker came off the bench to score 18 and Aaron Harrison added 13, but it was a defensive effort which routinely forced USC (10-8, 1-5) to work deep into the shot clock that ended any hopes of an upset like those the Gamecocks pulled here in 2010 and 2014.
“It just goes with our team concept,” Booker said. “Shutting teams out, that’s what we try to do. It’s easy with bigs back there.”
Those bigs – 6-11 Karl-Anthony Towns and 7-foot Willie Cauley-Stein in particular – blocked nine shots and altered twice that many, limiting South Carolina to 14 points in the paint. Kentucky entered the game as the national leader in blocked shots, averaging 8.1 per game and recording 10 or more in eight outings.
“When I look that way, it’s 7-foot. When I look this way, it’s 6-7,” Martin said. “So you’re swallowed up by size. And that’s why they’re good. They’re so big at every spot.”
USC’s defense kept the game within reach in the second half, but the Gamecocks simply couldn’t score enough to mount a comeback. Martin praised his team’s effort, which he said was more like what he saw from USC during its seven-game winning streak in pre-conference play, and much improved from a lackluster second-half performance in a loss Tuesday to Tennessee.
“It’s hard to beat anybody, let alone the No. 1 team in the country, when you shoot 22 percent,” he said. “But if our fight is where it needs to be, we’ll be OK.”
That bit of hope, though, is obscured by another skid to start SEC play. The Gamecocks opened 0-6 in the league last season, and only a missed 3-pointer at the buzzer by Alabama’s Levi Randolph is preventing them from being there again. South Carolina’s offense, so effective during an unbeaten December, has become decidedly more erratic during a conference slate in which USC is shooting 38 percent.
It was worse than that Saturday against No. 1 Kentucky – though there were a few tall mitigating factors in the way.
“Not much you can do. They’re doing everything they can,” Martin said. “Kentucky’s good. They’re real good defensively. We got some looks, and we just weren’t making them.”