COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) South Carolina is looking to channel its success against No. 1 Kentucky, which knows too well the dangers of entering Colonial Life Arena with a perfect record.
Those 2010 Wildcats featured NBA standouts John Wall and Demarcus Cousins and seemed certain to obliterate the Gamecocks. Instead, South Carolina ended Kentucky’s 19-0 start with a 68-62 victory.
The Wildcats learned their lesson. Two years later, as the country’s No. 1 team and led by Anthony Davis and Terrance Jones, they ran past the Gamecocks 82-56.
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While the cast of players is different, the situation is similar Saturday, with No. 1 Kentucky (18-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) heading to South Carolina (10-7, 1-4).
Kentucky coach John Calipari brings another deep and talented team into a venue where it has lost three of the past five times. The most recent came last year when the Wildcats were beaten 72-67.
”The thing that they’ve benefited most of is that you don’t have to play well because we have enough guys,” Calipari said. ”Now you can just worry about really playing hard and doing your best. There’s no, like, `If I don’t play well we’re going to lose this game.”’
That hasn’t always been the case in previous Kentucky visits.
Former Gamecocks coach Darrin Horn won three straight series meetings – two at home – in 2009 and 2010, including the program’s only win over a team ranked No. 1 in The Associated Press rankings.
Kentucky had ascended to the top spot for the first time in seven years and figured to stay that way against an up-and-down South Carolina. Instead, Gamecocks star Devan Downey scored 30 points and South Carolina’s defense rattled Kentucky in the upset.
Horn, an analyst on the SEC Network, recalls how a game earlier, his team’s late-game basket to take a lead at Florida was trumped by a Chandler Parsons’ 3-pointer to give the Gators the victory.
”We met Sunday and said, `We can’t sit around whining about what happened. We have to get ready” for Kentucky.
It also didn’t totally sit right with his team, Horn said, that Kentucky entertained a game-day call from President Obama for their fundraising efforts to help Haiti.
”They were in our building and worried about talking to the president,” Horn said with a laugh.
Things were tight throughout and Horn said an official came over late in the game with South Carolina out front with a message from Calipari. The coach congratulated the Gamecocks since Calipari expected bedlam at the arena and wanted to get his players off the court quickly.
”That’s when it set in,” Horn said.
Two years later, Kentucky made sure not repeat its mistakes as the No. 1 team pounced on the Gamecocks. Davis, this week named an NBA All-Star starter, had 23 points, eight rebounds and eight blocks.
Kentucky was not on top of the rankings year ago. Still, it was team expected to easily put away Frank Martin’s Gamecocks.
South Carolina, though, took a double-digit lead and held on despite the Wildcats’ late rally for one of the biggest victories in Martin’s three seasons.
Calipari was ejected in that game, a moment that sparked his team’s second-half comeback to get within a point before losing.
”We didn’t bow our necks until I got tossed, and then we bowed our necks and played. But they’re going to be physical,” he said of South Carolina. ”They come right at you.”
The Gamecocks had hoped to be challenging for the top of the SEC at this point – they entered league play off a victory over then ninth-ranked Iowa State this month – but have lost four of five in league play so far.
Guard Sindarius Thornwell, part of last year’s win, said his team can feel good about what happened in 2014, but can’t rely on that to defeat Kentucky this time.
”It’s a new year, we’re a new team and they’re a new team,” Thornwell said. ”So we’re just coming out, trying to create good vibes and come in and do the right thing.”
AP Sports Writer Gary Graves contributed to this report from Lexington, Kentucky.