LEXINGTON, Ky. — From start to finish Saturday, the honors kept piling up for coach John Calipari and No. 1 Kentucky.
Hours after Calipari was picked as a Hall of Fame finalist, his unbeaten Wildcats matched the storied program’s best start.
Calipari and his players noted that time will tell if they all take their place among the game’s greats. But in improving to 25-0 with Saturday’s 77-43 blowout of South Carolina, the Wildcats gave a powerful reminder that they’re certainly capable of running the table.
Willie Cauley-Stein had 14 points and seven rebounds, Aaron Harrison added 11 and Kentucky never had a problem in tying the 1953-54 Wildcats. That squad finished 25-0 with a team that featured future Naismith Hall of Famers Cliff Hagan and Frank Ramsey, then declined an NCAA tournament bid. A year earlier, Kentucky had been under suspension by the NCAA and canceled its season.
This year’s Wildcats are trying to win the school’s ninth national championship. They took another step toward their quest for perfection by completing a season sweep of the overmatched Gamecocks (12-12, 3-9 Southeastern Conference).
A history lesson followed.
“It’s just, like, special,” Cauley-Stein said. “It’s special to me because I came from one of the worst teams in Kentucky history (21-12 two years ago) to being on one of the top teams. It’s just cool to see the evolution.”
“A lot of us didn’t even know about the record,” added sophomore point guard Andrew Harrison, who had nine points, six assists and four rebounds. “We’re just trying to take it one game at a time and win every game that we play. It doesn’t matter if we don’t finish it out right. We just have to stay focused.”
Kentucky (12-0 Southeastern Conference) was certainly locked in against South Carolina (12-12, 3-9), especially defensively.
After holding the Gamecocks to a season-low 23 percent shooting in last month’s meeting, Kentucky limited the Gamecocks to just 13 of 55 from the field (24 percent) this time. The Wildcats needed less than 12 minutes to build a 20-point lead that eventually reached 39 with 4:27 remaining.
Kentucky’s dominant performance was just what Calipari wanted from his talented squad after Tuesday night’s escape at LSU. On Friday, he voiced his distaste for close wins and challenged the Wildcats to show a “killer instinct” with the postseason just around the corner.
Calipari had no complaints on Saturday.
“We played well,” he said. “Offensively we were really good, which created a pretty big gap. But I thought we defended, we played with great energy, we needed to play a game like this.”
Dakari Johnson added 13 rebounds and 10 points for Kentucky, which shot 50 percent. Karl-Anthony Towns and Devin Booker each added nine points.
Sindarius Thornwell scored a game-high 20 points for the Gamecocks, who were outrebounded 45-21 and beaten in just about every statistical category except steals (3-2).
“We didn’t stick to the script,” Thornwell said. “They outplayed us and outhustled us.”
Kentucky led 43-18 at halftime and poured it on against a Gamecocks squad looking to build off a five-point win over Missouri. Instead, South Carolina ended up as the footnote in a history-tying performance that these Wildcats hope to make their own Tuesday at Tennessee.
“They played with the same resolve three weeks ago,” Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said. “I just thought we fought (then). Today, we didn’t fight. ... We walked in and as soon as we got punched, we went down.”
Earlier in the day, Calipari was picked as one of 12 finalists for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He said afterward, “I’m honored and humbled when you see all the people they’re talking about. And then all the people that I followed their whole careers.” The 2015 class will be announced on April 6 in Indianapolis.
Former Wildcats Julius Randle and James Young, both first-round NBA draft picks last summer, attended the game with the league off for the all-star break.
South Carolina: Besides matching a season low in points — also against Kentucky — the Gamecocks had a season-worst three assists on 13 baskets.
Kentucky: Forward Trey Lyles made his first start since Jan. 24 against the Gamecocks and had eight points and four rebounds in 21 minutes. ... Kentucky’s plus-24 rebounding margin was its second highest this season. ... The Wildcats improved to 25-3 over the Gamecocks in Lexington and 49-11 overall.
South Carolina: Visits Georgia on Tuesday.
Kentucky: Visits Tennessee on Tuesday.