Booker leads No. 1 Kentucky to win over South Carolina Gamecocks
Devin Booker found a way to make an impact for No. 1 Kentucky.
He did it again Saturday, leading the Wildcats (19-0, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) with 18 points in a 58-43 victory at South Carolina.
The win matched the team’s best start under coach John Calipari and kept the Wildcats from another "House of Horrors" moment at the Colonial Life Arena where they’d lost three of their previous five games.
Booker scored seven points in Kentucky"s 14-0 run that spanned both halves, closing the surge with a 3-pointer that put the Wildcats ahead 37-24 with 18:28 remaining.
"I just try to find him," said reserve point guard and fellow freshman Tyler Ulis, who led the Wildcats with six assists — several to Booker. "We came to school together. He gets the job done. He can shoot the ball so if I need to outlet, he’s going to be there."
He was against the Gamecocks (10-8, 1-5), hitting six of his nine shots. Booker has made 13 of his 20 shots from long range since SEC play began, but said he’s been kept grounded by Calipari’s reminders not to force things and let the game come to him.
"I feel like that’s a coach’s job, you can’t let somebody just feel like they’re going to take over," Booker said of staying humble despite success.
Aaron Harrison added 13 points for Kentucky, which tied the mark of 19-0 in Calipari’s debut season of 2010. That streak was ended right here, a 68-62 stunner and gave Wildcat freshmen — and now NBA standouts — John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins their first college losses.
Just last season, a Kentucky team headed to the national championship game lost 72-67 only weeks before on this same floor.
The Wildcats turned up the defense to make sure that didn’t happen this time after Sindarius Thornwell hit a 3-pointer for a 24-23 South Carolina lead with 4:31 left that sent the fans into a frenzy.
Ulis started the comeback for Kentucky with a steal and basket before Booker made two fouls shots and a dunk and the Wildcats were on their way.
Thornwell had 11 points for the Gamecocks, who shot 4 for 27 in the final 24 minutes.
Thornwell said South Carolina needed to take advantage of the situation instead of watching Kentucky pull away.
"That hurt us a lot," he said. "It would’ve been good if we could build off that shot and gain momentum."
Duane Notice, South Carolina’s leading scorer this season, was held to two points, nine fewer than his average, and missed all five field goal tries.
This one seemed as big a mismatch with the Harrison twins and bevy of big bodies to control the struggling Gamecocks.
Still, it took until late in the opening half before the Wildcats’ talent and athleticism took control to score the final 11 points of the half.
BESTING THE BARON
John Calipari is ahead of Kentucky great Adolph Rupp as far as winning percentage at the start of his tenure on campus with 171 wins his first 208 games. Rupp won 169 games in that same stretch. "When you have good players," Calipari said. "Craziness, you’re going to win a lot of games."
South Carolina coach Frank Martin was happy with his team’s improved effort from earlier in the week in a loss to Tennessee. Then he said his players were all driving separate cars on the highway. This time, the fire, resolve and togetherness was evident at practices and in the game.
"I couldn’t be prouder of the fight, attention to detail," Martin said. "It’s hard to beat anyone, including the No. 1 team in the country, shooting 22 percent. But the fight is where it needs to be."
Kentucky: The Wildcats have found their range from the 3-point line, hitting 68 of 153 (39 percent) over their past eight games. Kentucky has hit a higher rate in SEC games (43 of 98, 44 percent)
South Carolina: The Gamecocks fell to 1-11 against teams ranked No. 1 by The Associated Press.
Kentucky travels to Missouri on Thursday night.
South Carolina plays at LSU on Wednesday night.