South Carolina basketball coach Lamont Paris and his team were coming off of a win on the road over Arkansas, but their biggest challenge of the year awaited them on Tuesday.
The Kentucky Wildcats traveled down to Columbia for a showdown with the Gamecocks in front of a sold out and wild crowd in Colonial Life Arena. USC was seeking their first win over a ranked opponent in their last 16 tries (0-15 since January 2021). They were also looking for their first regular season win over a top-6 team since the 2009-2010 version of the South Carolina basketball team beat Kentucky when they were ranked #1.
It was a blackout for the Gamecocks as the fans and players wore black instead of the traditional home white. The energy was at a season-high, and the play on the court kept the crowd into the game the whole night.
The game started with Collin Murray-Boyles winning the tip, but a BJ Mack jumper didn’t fall. Kentucky opened the scoring with a long Antonio Reeves floater, and Mack threw up an ugly airball for a shot clock violation.
The sloppy play for Carolina continued as Mack missed again, and Meechie Johnson committed a turnover in transition. Luckily for the home team, UK only scored once more before Johnson made a nice layup after a screen at the top of the key.
Some nice defense from both teams kept things scoreless over the next minute before a transition 3-pointer from Ta’Lon Cooper put the Gamecocks ahead 5-4. Next trip down, a missed shot resulted in an offensive rebound from Collin Murray-Boyles and a dunk from big Josh Gray.
The Gamecocks’ 7-0 run was broken by a Rob Dillingham layup, but the lead grew to 4 for South Carolina basketball when another offensive rebound saw Jacobi Wright hit a deep 3-pointer.
With the score 10-9, a Meechie Johnson 3-pointer was disallowed due to a shot clock violation, and a couple of possessions later, Dillingham put the ‘Cats up with a free throw line jumper. It didn’t last, though, as Stephen Clark hammered down a big dunk in the pick-and-roll.
Kentucky scored 6 in a row off of Carolina misses, and in the blink of an eye, UK led 17-12.
Zvonimir Ivisic drew a foul on Josh Gray (a collision between the two biggest men in the arena), and Big Z made one before Jacobi Wright made his third 3-pointer of the 1st half to make the score 21-19. A nice hesitation move from Meechie Johnson tied the score, and at the media timeout, the upset bid was still intact as the score stood 21-21.
After the break, Gray posted up Big Z and thundered home a big dunk with the Croatian monster on his back. Bad turnovers from each team marred the next couple of possessions, but BJ Mack scored his first bucket on a wild fallaway from just outside of the lane.
A ridiculously athletic block from Collin Murray-Boyles (complete with a tight-roping of the baseline to keep possession of the ball) led the Gamecocks to another bucket as a Ta’Lon Cooper hang-and-bang layup through contact dropped through the cylinder. At the under-4 media timeout, the Gamecocks led 27-23.
Dillingham got a bucket for his team out of the timeout, but Cooper canned a 3-pointer in response. Those looked like they would be the last points of the half as neither team scored over the final 2:39..until the last two seconds, that is. Right before the buzzer, Zach Davis hit a 3 to give them the biggest lead of the night. Heading into the intermission, though, the Gamecocks led 33-25.
Coming out of halftime, Antonio Reeves scored four straight John Calipari’s team, but BJ Mack knocked down a 3-pointer to bring the score to 36-29.
A few possessions later, the Wildcats cut the lead to 4 with a Reeves’ 3-pointer, but Collin Murray-Boyles dunked all over Big Z the next time down the floor.
Four straight missed shots from USC allowed for Kentucky to cut the lead to 40-38, the latest two points coming after two fouls in five seconds called on Stephen Clark. Ta’Lon Cooper settled things down, though, with a baseline shot that was somewhere between a jumper and a floater.
Clark was called for his third foul in a minute, this one a flagrant foul on offense as his elbow hit Tre Mitchell. However, upon review, the foul was transferred to Mitchell for being in the “cylinder” around Clark when the contact was made.
The home team couldn’t take advantage of the extra possession, but after a Kentucky turnover, Jacobi Wright hit another long ball (now 4-4 from behind the arc), and the 45-38 lead got the crowd at CLA on its feet, prompting Coach Cal to call a timeout to quiet things down.
A 2nd chance make from Mitchell was immediately followed by some sweet string music from outside by BJ Mack. Then, an 8-foot jump hook from Cooper lit up the scoreboard, and 50-40 was the count with 12 minutes remaining.
Meechie Johnson tickled the twine with a deep ball from 30 feet, and the 8-0 run from USC put them up 13. DJ Wagner scored for Kentucky, but then Ta’Lon Cooper hit a flat-out silly step back to answer. The lead grew to 15 as the ‘Cats lost Zach Davis on an out-of-bounds play.
Big Z got a dunk, but Josh Gray took that personally. On the other end, he posted up the big Croatian and converted an and-one layup (and made the free throw). The ‘Cocks led 60-44 with 8:30 left to play. The sport of Big Z hunting continued on the next possession as they worked until he was switched onto the perimeter where Ta’Lon Cooper cooked the big man off the dribble and scored on an easy layup to go up 18.
Buckets from Meechie Johnson on an out-of-bounds play and Collin Murray-Boyles after a nasty Johnson crossover put USC up 20. A couple of Gamecock fouls gave Kentucky some free points, but even after Big Blue’s run, South Carolina basketball led by 15 at the under-4 media timeout.
With John Calipari standing on the court, Ta'Lon Cooper hit another midrange shot to push the lead back to 17. From there, the Gamecocks took the air out of the basketball and worked the clock, cruising to the final buzzer. A Meechie Johnson 30-footer was the final nail in the Wildcats' coffin as Lamont Paris' Gamecocks told the college basketball world that they were for real.