COLUMBIA, S.C. --- Chalk one up in the "Well, it's a win" category.
Rescued by Cliff Hawkins' off-balance running jumper with 3.8 seconds left, the Kentucky Wildcats came from behind to beat South Carolina 51-50 Saturday and avoid their third straight loss to open Southeastern Conference play.
Kentucky (10-4, 1-2 SEC) struggled throughout the game, scoring a season-low 21 points in the first half and trailing for the final 24 minutes leading up to Hawkins' desperation shot. The sophomore point guard, who had come up empty in two similar situations this season, scored UK's final six points in an 8-3 run to close the game.
"I'm happy that I could make the shot," said Hawkins, who had been criticized by fans and his coach alike for failing to get the ball into the hands of his All-American teammate, senior forward Tayshaun Prince, in the Cats' losses to Mississippi State and Georgia. "The whole 30 seconds, we were trying to get Tayshaun the shot. I kept looking for Tayshaun, looking for Tayshaun, and time was just running short. We couldn't get him the ball, so when time was running short, I just tried to get to the basket and get it up there."
South Carolina (10-5, 0-2) had a final shot to win, but Aaron Lucas' running 18-footer at the buzzer was partially blocked by UK's Marquis Estill, touching off a relieved celebration by the Cats.
"We made plays when we had to down the stretch, and that's what you've got to do in this league on the road," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "It was a very hard-fought game. (South Carolina is) a very physical team. I was worried about that."
Defense was the key throughout for UK, who held the Gamecocks to 32 percent from the field and did not allow a basket in the final five minutes. Jamel Bradley hit four 3-pointers as part of his game-high 19 points, but the rest of the USC team combined to go 1-for-12 from long range.
Gerald Fitch sparked the Cats' defensive effort with strong on-ball defense throughout and four steals, three of them leading to six of his team-high 11 points.
"Gerald was outstanding," Smith said. "He's the heart and soul of this basketball team. He's the No. 1 gough kid on the team, and he proved it today."
Kentucky led 14-9 in the game's early moments, but hit one of its customary dry spells midway through the first half. The Cats managed only one basket during a 5:41 span as South Carolina pulled even at 16.
Bradley hit three straight free throws after being fouled on a 3-point attempt at the 2:40 mark, giving the Gamecocks a lead they would hold until Hawkins' game-winner.
South Carolina led 24-21 at the half and by as many as eight (38-30) with 12:55 left.
Consecutive putback shots by Fitch and Hawkins pulled Kentucky even at 47 at the 2:52 mark.
That's when good fortune kicked in on UK's behalf. Marius Petravicius hit one of two free throws with 1:42 remaining to put USC ahead 48-47. Prince missed shots on the Cats' next two possessions, and Petravcius hit two more free throws to make it 50-47 with 1:11 left.
A Hawkins running jumper with 37 seconds left pulled UK within one, and Petravicius missed the front end of a bonus situation. Marquis Estill pulled down the last of his team-high eight rebounds, and the Cats called timeout to set up the final play.
In addition to his game-winning heroics, Hawkins turned in a smothering defensive effort on Lucas, who was 1-for-10 from the floor and scored only four points. He was averaging 11 points on the season.
Kentucky shot 48 percent from the field and owned a 36-26 rebounding advantage, but were hurt by 20 turnovers. No one else managed double figures for the Cats. Prince, Hawkins and Keith Bogans each followed Fitch with eight points.