Turnabout was fair play. The Kentucky Wildcats, winners of two previous comeback victories in as many days, found out the painful way how it felt when the shoe was on the other foot.
And it didn't have to be that way. This game was quite winnable for Kentucky.
On two different occasions, the Wildcats built small leads and had momentum. It seemed as if the South Carolina Gamecocks might wither and die. But instead of closing the door, the Wildcats seemed to let up, mentally and physically, allowing the Gamecocks to turn the momentum.
Just five minutes into the game, sophomore Ramel Bradley entered the game and provided an immediate spark. With the Cats leading 10-6, Bradley pulled in a rebound from a missed three point shot by Rocky Trice. On the other end of the floor, Bradley nailed his first jumper to extend the lead to 12-6. The Gamecocks would score but Bradley answered again.
After a bucket by Tarence Kinsey, Joe Crawford answered by extending the lead to seven with a three pointer. The Kentucky dominated crowd cheered. The Cats seemed on the verge of blowing the game open right then and there.
Bradley began jumping up and down. The bench was standing and waving towels, applauding the effort. "I felt like we were really in a zone," Bradley said, "we had an answer for all their best shots and it felt like our momentum was building." But the opposite would happen. Unexplainably, it would be Kentucky that faded. From the sideline it appeared as if the air was being let out of a balloon. Randolph Morris missed a short range shot, and Bobby Perry barely drew iron on a long bomb. Morris missed another short shot, rebounded his miss and missed again. Senior Patrick Sparks compounded the frustration by turning the ball over.
Ramel Bradley tried to keep the Cats in the game, hitting one long range shot, but by then South Carolina had recaptured the lead 23-20 and the momentum had clearly turned.
"It was frustrating," said Morris, "their big guys were playing physical and were beating us to the ball. I took some shots that I would normally make and they just didn't fall."
Bradley was involved in helping UK establish a lead in the second half as well. With the score tied at 45, Bradley tipped in a Sheray Thomas miss to put the Cats in front. He would then nab a rebound get the Cats moving. Ravi Moss canned a three pointer that put the Cats up by five with 10:00 remaining.
"At that point, we were feeling pretty good," said Randolph Morris, "I felt like we were hitting our shots." Bradley agreed, "The team was really charged when Ravi hit that three."
But the Cats would once again suffer a sudden loss of energy and allow the Gamecocks to come back and, this time, assume control of the game. First, Moss would miss a shot and Sheray Thomas would commit an offensive foul going for the rebound. The Cats would score just two buckets over the next seven minutes, and a 5-point lead turned into a 6-point deficit in the process.
Crawford summed it up, "We weren't hitting our shots. They were getting the loose balls and getting down the court. We weren't as quick as we needed to be getting back on defense. They got the open shots and they were hitting them. They wanted it more than we did."
The Wildcats wasted one last opportunity to knot the game with 1:13 remaining, but Crawford's three pointer came up short, "I felt good about the shot," Crawford said, "the release felt good. I had a good look at the basket. It just didn't go in."
With the Cats still down three, coach Tubby Smith employed one last strategy that would backfire. Kentucky had just three team fouls. "We wanted to get to the point where it's a one-and-one situation," Smith said "… that was my thought process at the time, go for a steal. If you don't get it, you know, try to make sure you foul."
The plan failed, however. The players allowed too much time to pass before fouling. And compounding it all, Brandon Wallace shook Morris off for an open dunk for a five point lead. The Cats had allowed the clock to slip down to just 18 seconds remaining before Crawford would commit the foul to put the Gamecocks in the one and one.
So, coach Smith's strategy was to put the Gamecocks on the line for the one and one. But by the time it happened, 55 seconds had run off the clock, leaving almost no time for the Cats to mount a comeback.
The Wildcats lost to a determined team that has their backs against the wall. South Carolina needs to win the SEC Tournament Sunday to be assured a spot in the NCAA Tournament. So they had every motivation imaginable. But still, the Cats seemed let opportunity after opportunity slip away.
One has to wonder, as an example, why Ramel Bradley only played 14 minutes in the game. Bradley was 4-4 from the field, including a three pointer. He had been involved in both runs where UK had established momentum and captured a lead. Yet, inexplicably, he sat on the bench at critical moments down the stretch.
"That was coach's decision," Bradley said, shrugging. Same question about Patrick Sparks. Yes, he had committed five turnovers. Yes, that's a lot of turnovers. But Sparks overall has one of the best assist to turnover ratios in the SEC. This is crunch time. You're behind. Patrick Sparks has shot the Cats back into many a game in clutch situations.
The senior sharpshooter was 3-5 from three point range, including a three to open the second half, allowing the Cats to tie the game. Yet, Sparks cooled his heels on the bench during much of the critical action in the second half, and would take his last shot of the game with 16:43 remaining on the clock. He played a total of 23 minutes.
"It was the coach's decision," Sparks said.