- Wednesday, January 5 2005 -
South Carolina - 75 (Head Coach: Dave Odom) - [Unranked]
Kentucky - 79 (Head Coach: Orlando Smith) - [Ranked 8th by AP and 8th by ESPN/USA Today]
Halftime Score: South Carolina 41, Kentucky 35
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Game Writeup - Written by and courtesy of Matt May; Kentucky Sports Report, (All Rights Reserved)
Wildcats squeeze by Gamecocks in SEC opener
Tubby Smith warned his young Kentucky basketball team that Southeastern Conference play was a whole different animal, but it took the Cats being thrown into the Lion's Dean to fully understand.
Luckily the den was Rupp Arena and UK rode a wave of emotion and intensity to a second half comeback, allowing them to escape with a 79-75 victory over South Carolina to start the conference gauntlet.
While the end result was a rosy one for the Cats (10-1, 1-0 SEC), it certainly wasn't easy. The Gamecocks lived up to their billing as a team that was quick, athletic and played stingy defense, but it was their shooting that had UK on its heels from the outset. For the first time in 43 games, an opponent hit more than half of their shots against the Cats, who allowed Carolina to shoot nearly 59 percent in the first half.
"Defensively we were not at our best," Smith said. "We played very poor defense, especially in the first half. In the second half we did a better job.
"(South Carolina) hasn't shot the ball well, but we didn't guard anybody. I could have made threes. We gave up wide open threes, it was a joke."
The inconsistent defense allowed South Carolina to get rolling in the first half. Despite the Cats hitting their first seven field goals to take a 19-12 lead, the Gamecocks hung tough by flinging in shots from all over the court. The six three-pointers Carolina hit in the first half were a bit of a shock given the Gamecocks were shooting just 29 percent from long range entering the game. Even more surprising was Carlos Powell hitting both his triples - double his season total Ð including a rainbow triple with 2.1 seconds left to give USC a 41-35 halftime edge.
"He was 1-of-11," UK senior Chuck Hayes said of Powell's three-point shooting on the season. "I read up on him. I did my research. He hit the first one, so I said, 'Hey, everybody is good for one.' The second one, that killed me. Senior to senior, captain to captain, I took it personal and had to shut him down."
The Cats were only marginally better on defense in the second half, but it was the improved aggression and offensive execution that got UK back into the game. Attacking the basket inside and getting out in transition, UK shot 56.5 percent in the half and got rolling behind the stellar play of Kelenna Azubuike and Rajon Rondo. Azubuike, who tends to disappear at times, exploded for 14 of is game-high 21 points after the break and Rondo's defensive pressure and finishes on the break were crucial in the comeback.
"Rondo played great," junior Ravi Moss said. "He was everywhere. He was the general."
If Rondo was the general and Azubuike the lead gunner, Hayes was the rock. It was Hayes' defense on Powell that held him to just two points after intermission on the heels of 13 points on 5-of-5 shooting in the first.
"I'm going to tell you exactly who (Powell) is, he's Erik Daniels," Hayes said. "He's Erik to a 'T'. I've had a tough time with him because he's a lefty and he uses those angles.
"I took it personal and had to shut him down."
UK didn't exactly slam the door on Carolina, but thanks to a 16-4 second half run and timely play a trio of players, the Cats survived to win their 17th SEC opener in the last 18 tries when Moss blocked Josh Gonner's three-point attempt from the corner on a two-on-one break with 30 seconds left that could have cut the lead to 77-74.
"I figured (Tre) Kelly would pass it to him," Moss said. "I figured he'd go that way because they needed a three there. I took a guess."
The guess was the right one and UK came out triumphant in a tight game once again.
Patrick Sparks' box score line pretty much mirrored his night Ð nothing seemed quite right. The junior guard was just a bit off his normal game for much of the evening, turning the ball over six times, missing five of his six three-pointers and coming up shockingly short on the front end of three late trips to the free throw line.
Still, Sparks tallied 10 points, dished out seven assists for the third straight game and had five rebounds to help UK slide past South Carolina. Nonetheless, Sparks wasn't real thrilled with his night.
"I didn't have too good a game," Sparks said. "Missing free throws, turnovers. I had some miscues with Shagari (Alleyne) two or three times that usually doesn't happen. I had it back-tipped a few times."
Smith said Sparks' frustration showed late in the game.
"Patrick was off his game and the burden is on us when he doesn't have a good game," Smith said. "He let it get to him."
Sparks didn't deny the mind games he was playing with himself.
"I do that sometimes, get down on myself for things that happened," Sparks said. "My mind got cluttered."
From what exactly?
"Those five threes I missed," Sparks said.
Luckily for UK, freshman Rajon Rondo played the best game of his young career to help make up for Sparks' lackluster performance.
Rajon Rondo cuts through two USC defenders to the hoop
Shagari Alleyne shoots