LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP)—Kentucky coach Tubby Smith doesn’t tend to boast after blowouts, let alone games in which his team comes within an eyelash of giving up a 28-point lead.
So, when Smith started waxing philosophical about the greatness of his Wildcats following their 95-89 victory over Southeastern Conference cellar dweller South Carolina on Wednesday night, sarcasm was clearly at work.
“We’ve got the best concentration of any team in America,” Smith said. “I never see a slip. Our concentration is at an all-time high.”
Later, he deadpanned: “I’ve got to laugh instead of cry.”
With top-ranked and defending national champion Florida coming to Lexington on Saturday night, Kentucky approached this tuneup as a major test. The No. 20 Wildcats (18-5, 7-2) got a passing grade in the first half, but failed miserably in the second—giving up 61 points to a team they had previously defeated by 38.
“It was a combination of two things,” said Kentucky forward Bobby Perry, who had 12 of his season-high 18 points in the first half. “We had a mental lapse, and South Carolina—they weren’t going to give up.”
Last month in Columbia, Kentucky handed the Gamecocks (12-10, 2-7) their worst home loss since 1915. This one appeared headed that way too before South Carolina made a furious second-half run to make it close.
Kentucky built a 50-28 halftime lead—its highest first-half point total since getting 60 against Florida A&M in the first round of the 2004 NCAA tournament.
“I thought we were fortunate to be within the same county at halftime,” South Carolina coach Dave Odom said.
But with 3 minutes left, South Carolina used two steals to get three baskets — two by Brandon Wallace—in the span of just 12 seconds to cut the lead to 87-77. Tre Kelley got five of his career-high 36 points in the final seconds before time ran out on the comeback attempt.
Smith made the first change to his starting lineup in 16 games, putting Lukasz Obrzut at center in place of the team’s leading scorer, Randolph Morris. Smith said Morris, who ended up playing 22 minutes, had violated an undisclosed team rule.
Morris had 17 points and showed off some new dunks, including a thundering backward one. Morris said he wasn’t letting off steam because of his temporary demotion.
“I was just trying to get up in the air,” he said.
Ramel Bradley scored 21 to lead four Wildcats in double figures.
Defense was the focus after a letdown Saturday against Arkansas. The Wildcats held the Gamecocks to 38 percent shooting in the first half, but 57 percent in the second.
Kentucky never trailed in the game as Obrzut made an immediate impact, getting the opening tip and scoring on a three-point play. After that, Perry provided the offense to give the Wildcats an early cushion.
Perry had 10 points before South Carolina scored its sixth as the Wildcats got out to a 20-5 lead. He scored eight of his points—including two 3-pointers — in about a minute.
The Wildcats used a 13-0 run early in the first half and a 15-2 run a few minutes later on the way to what appeared would be their second straight rout of the Gamecocks. But Kelley—a senior whose previous career high was 29 last month against Vanderbilt—had four of the team’s 12 3-pointers.
“It means nothing to me when we lose the game,” Kelley said. “I just tried to do anything positive.”