COLUMBIA, S.C. — No lead is safe in college basketball, and that was almost proven in the final seconds of the South Carolina Gamecocks’ upset over the No. 17 Kentucky Wildcats on Saturday.
Instead, South Carolina coach Frank Martin snared the best win of his two-year tenure with the Gamecocks, holding off Kentucky in the final seconds for a 72-67 home win.
The Wildcats stumbled to their second loss in a row for the first time this season, but nearly salvaged the win. South Carolina held what seemed like an insurmountable lead — 68-61 with less than 30 seconds to go.
But shooting guard Aaron Harrison hit a 25-footer with about 27 seconds to go, and the Wildcats stole the inbounds pass. Power forward Julius Randle drove to the basket and made a lay-up through a foul, then sank the free throw to bring the score to 68-67 with 21 seconds left.
But the Gamecocks hit all four of their free-throw attempts in the final 21 seconds to seal the win.
“We did everything we could to screw it up, I promise you,” Martin said. “We made a lot of mistakes in those last 30 seconds of the game. But that’s OK.”
Kentucky coach John Calipari, who was ejected with just over 10 minutes to play after getting his second technical foul, wasn’t courtside for the final quarter of perhaps his worst loss in five years as the Wildcats’ coach.
Calipari did not go to his post-game news conference, instead dispatching assistant coach John Robic (who served as de facto head coach after Calipari’s ejection) to talk to media. But on his post-game radio show with Kentucky’s play-by-play radio announcer, Calipari said his team wasn’t ready to overcome its flaws.
“Hey, give them credit. We weren’t ready — the game was too physical, bottom line,” Calipari said. “A couple guys had turnovers, guys missed — again, we had 21 offensive rebounds and only made 14 baskets. That means you had the ball one foot from the goal 21 times aside from all the other shots you took and couldn’t get it in the basket. Now, either we’re not very good from one foot out or, you know, we just couldn’t play through the bumps in the chest.”
Guard Brent Williams hit 15 of 16 free throws and scored a game-high 24 points for South Carolina (11-18, 4-12 Southeastern Conference). Guard Sindarius Thornwell added 14 points and forward Michael Carrera scored 11.
Harrison led Kentucky (21-8, 11-5) with 21 points, and guard James Young added 19. Randle recorded 10 points and 15 rebounds.
The Wildcats went well over 10 minutes without a field goal at one point. They didn’t make a shot over the final 7:45 of the first half, and the drought ended when center Willie Cauley-Stein’s hook shot with 14:22 to play was goaltended.
Kentucky was active on the offensive glass in the first half against an undersized South Carolina team, but those offensive boards were the only action keeping Kentucky’s offense engaged. The Wildcats missed 19 of their first 24 shots and collected rebounds on 14 of those misses.
The Gamecocks didn’t do much to capitalize on Kentucky’s stagnant offense, but it was enough in the first half. While Kentucky’s offense was stammering, South Carolina occasionally beat the Wildcats back in transition but could not generate much scoring in half-court sets.
Despite the poor performance, Harrison said the loss would not end Kentucky’s season.
“We know what we can do, and it’s going to be a great story,” he said.
South Carolina was 10 of 28 from the floor in the first half, but 4-of-8 3-point shooting propelled the Gamecocks to a 31-28 halftime lead.
With 5:50 left in the first half, South Carolina was setting up its offense and play was blown dead when Calipari was assessed his first technical foul.
As the final seconds slowly melted off the clock, fans at Colonial Life Arena began swelling in the stands in anticipation of storming the court upon the final buzzer. The public-address announcer warned fans to stay off the court, but the announcement was of no use.
Williams hit the final two free throws with about five seconds to play that made the game a two-possession spread and ultimately
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