It was a brutal wake-up call the No. 13 Kentucky Wildcats received Thursday night in Columbia. A 27-point shellacking courtesy of the No. 4 South Carolina Gamecocks was the first time in over two years that the ‘Cats have allowed more than 90 points.
From the opening tip, South Carolina controlled the game; leading by 12 after the first quarter, 21 at halftime, and 27 heading into the final period. Outside of Rhyne Howard’s 28 points and a couple of impressive scoring spurts from Chasity Patterson, Kentucky’s offense could hardly break past the three-point arc. The defense allowed 60 points in the paint and were outrebounded by 20. They were thoroughly outplayed and thoroughly outcoached. And Matthew Mitchell will be the first one to admit it.
“We did not do one thing that we were supposed to do, and that all falls on me for not having the team ready to go,” Mitchell said at Friday’s press conference. “It’s real disappointing, and we will work hard like heck for that not to happen again.”
It wasn’t even four minutes into the first SEC game of the season for UK that they found themselves in a significant hole. Trailing 11-2, the game had already ended. Kentucky stood no chance against the size and length of South Carolina. The energy was immediately zapped from the entire Wildcat side of the court.
“The very first free throw that they took, we didn’t box out,” Mitchell continued. “We got trapped, didn’t come back with the ball, didn’t meet passes, didn’t set up screens, didn’t set screens, didn’t use screens – it was just a fundamental breakdown. So, that’s my direct responsibility to have the team ready to go.”
Kentucky stepped into an environment that was far more physical and intimidating than anything they’ve experienced this season. The one-point loss to Louisville was encouraging in many ways, but the intense Rupp Arena home crowd environment and more favorable matchups allowed for an exciting display on both sides. On the road against the first team that could bully them at every position, the ‘Cats crumbled. They did not fight back.
Kentucky’s next game is this Sunday against No. 22 Tennessee, and guess what? They are tall. Likely one of the tallest teams in the nation. The Volunteers roster consists of one player under 6-feet in height. They have six players that stand at least 6-foot-3. Kentucky has one.
“They’re [South Carolina and Tennessee] both real similar as far as very talented and very big, and we’re not very big,” Mitchell said. “So, we’ve got to fight like crazy. Tennessee probably has a little more size in some spots than South Carolina. They [South Carolina] really hurt us with that last night. So, we’ve got to be tougher earlier in possessions and that’s what we’ll have to do Sunday, I’m sure.”
The energy needs to take it up a notch, first and foremost. An added bonus will be playing back home in Memorial Coliseum (they haven’t played there since Dec. 8). UK will be fighting upwards for most of the game against the Vols. They’ll need the heart and desire that Mitchell referred to if they want to prevent dropping back-to-back games after such an impressive start to the season.
On the bright (?) side, Kentucky can at least take solace in knowing their 72 points scored against South Carolina were the most for the ‘Cats on the road against an AP top-5 team in over 20 years.
“That’s a very positive spin on last night…” Mitchell said with a laugh and a smile on his face. “Thank you for whoever dug up that little nugget of information that’s incredible. That’s probably not what I’ll present to the team today.”