It was the largest crowd to ever watch a college basketball game in the State of South Carolina.
USC fell behind by 29 points early in the second half before mounting a rally that saw the Gamecocks climb to within 13. But the Wildcats weathered the storm with a 9-0 run and went on to beat the Gamecocks on Senior Night.
USC fell to 21-8 overall, 8-7 in the SEC. The lopsided loss in the final regular season home game put talk of an NCAA Tournament berth on hold until the Gamecocks are able to post at least one more victory.
The loss dropped USC into a tie for third place in the SEC East with Vanderbilt (61-58 winners over Tennessee). If the two teams are still tied after Saturday, USC will earn the third spot due to its season sweep over the Commodores.
Kentucky (22-4, 12-3) has already locked up the East No. 1 seed for next week's SEC Tournament in Atlanta, and is fairly certain to receive no worse than a No. 2 seed for the NCAA Tournament.
Carlos Powell led USC with 15 points and nine rebounds. Brandon Freshman Wallace had 13 points and four rebounds.
USC was unable to generate any consistency on offense. After a miserable first half (31.0%), the Gamecocks shot slightly better in the second half (41.2%) but it wasn't nearly enough to stop the Wildcat onslaught.
USC was 7-for-27 on 3-pointers, while UK was 13-for-22 behind the arc, including 6-for-9 in the second half.
After Gonner hit a 3-pointer at the outset of the second half, USC fell back into its first half shooting funk. The frustration level may have peaked when Balkman missed an uncontested layup with just over 17 minutes left.
The Wildcats, who led, 38-24 at intermission, scored six straight points to take a 44-27 lead, its largest to that point, with 17:05 left.
Mike Boynton recorded his first basket of the game on a 3-pointer with 16:46 left. UK countered with a 3-pointer by Cliff Hawkins (game high 21 points).
Boynton added another 3-pointer to slice UK's lead to 47-33 before UK went on a shooting spree that saw the Wildcats hit three 3-pointers and a jumper within a span of 1:27 to expand the lead to 25 (58-33) with 13:36 left.
Two more UK baskets completed a 15-0 run as the Wildcats' lead peaked at 29 (62-33) with 12:25 left.
A USC flurry pulled the Gamecocks to within 19 (63-44) with 8:47 left, giving the spirited crowd a lift as UK called timeout.
Tree Kelley swished a 3-pointer to cut the lead to 16 (63-47) as the crowd roared, sensing a miraculous comeback. But it wasn't to be as UK matched USC basket by basket down the stretch.
Brandon Wallace had a tip-in to make it 65-49 with 6:46 left. His 3-pointer from the wing 1:40 later cut the deficit to 69-54. After a disputed out of bounds call, UK drained a 3-pointer to push the lead back to 18.
The Gamecocks managed to get to within 13 (72-59) on a basket by Tarence Kinsey with 3:02 left, but Kentucky, as it usually does, countered on the other end.
A 3-pointer by UK‘s Gerald Fitch (16 points, seven rebounds) with 1:41 left was the final nail in the coffin, as UK went on a 9-0 run after USC had pulled within 13.
The first half started well for USC, with the players and crowd still feeling the positive vibes from the Senior Day ceremonies. However, it didn't take long for UK's superior talent to take over.
Powell got USC, and the crowd, started with a short jumper from the baseline. Brown's 3-pointer from the top gave USC a 5-4 lead with 17:44 left.
Gonner, Balkman, and Chappell replaced the senior starter () with 16-1/2 minutes left and UK holding a 6-5 lead.
Balkman's putback after a scramble for the ball cut UK's lead to 9-7. John Chappell, picking up where he left off against Georgia, got strong low post position on his defender and hit a baby hook to tie the game at 9-9 with 15:09 left.
Balkman hit the second of two free throws to complete USC's 5-0 run and give the Gamecocks a 10-9 lead, its last of the game, with 13:51 left.
But little went right for USC the rest of the half.
UK's first points in 3:42 gave the Wildcats the lead for good at 11-10 with 12:18 left. The Wildcats followed with another basket on some good interior passing to expand the lead to 13-10, forcing USC to call timeout mere moments before a media timeout was scheduled to be called.
Balkman hit a shot of the glass to cut the lead to one (13-12) before a conventional three-point play by UK expanded its lead to four.
After Balkman's basket, USC went scoreless for the next 4:13 until Powell drove baseline and muscled his way for a layup with 6:50 left. USC was 0-for-5 from the field and committed four turnovers during the drought as the Gamecocks were quick to settle for long jumpers.
UK scored eight straight points to take a 21-12 lead heading into the third media timeout with 7:18 left.
Three 3-pointers by UK pushed the lead to 30-14 with 3:45 left as USC's offensive futility continued.
Powell ended UK's 17-2 run with an inside basket, then followed up with a 3-pointer from the top of the key to finally give the fans something to shout about.
UK's fifth 3-pointer of the first half gave the Wildcats a 34-20 lead before they matched their biggest lead of the half with a pair of free throws.
Powell's putback temporarily quelled UK's surge. Gonner hit two free throws with 7.2 seconds left to make it a 38-24 game at halftime.
USC shot a miserable 31.0% in the first half, including 2-for-11 from 3-point range, and committed 12 turnovers leading to 16 UK points.
NOTES: Since it was "Senior Night," USC head coach Dave Odom started four seniors: Boynton, Kerbrell Brown, Sheldon Everett, and Ivan Howell (who wore No. 55 in honor of his brother, Rolando). . . Current SEC East Standings: Kentucky 11-3, Florida 9-6, South Carolina 8-7, Vanderbilt 8-7, Tennessee 6-9, Georgia 6-9. . .UK now leads the all-time series against USC, 33-5. . .UK is 13-3 in Columbia. The last USC victory in Columbia against the Wildcats came during the 1996-97 season, when USC won in OT in game televised nationally by ESPN. . .The smallest crowd USC had for a SEC home game this season was 15,042 for Florida on 1/7/04. . .With Ro Howell's hopes to become a 1,000 point scorer dashed because of the fractured wrist, Carlos Powell is nearing the magic mark. Powell now has 953 career points. . .USC finished the 2003-2004 regular season 14-3 at the Colonial Center. . .UK has won the SEC East Championship five straight times and 10 times in 13 seasons. . .UK has won 20+ games for 14 straight seasons. .
USC HEAD COACH DAVE ODOM: "What we witnessed tonight was a great team playing at a high level. We didn't meet the challenge. We just couldn't get a handle on the game offensively or defensively. Their big guys ran the ball at us early and often. Hawkins was getting the ball deep any time he wanted. I was surprised our big guys didn't get back better. They shoot the ball very well. You have to give Kentucky all the credit in the world. I was very disappointed. I thought we would play better. When you don't play better than that in this league, things like this can happen. They took us apart. They beat us in every category. We turned the ball over at inopportune times."
"I feel badly for our seniors. I don't think this changes our NCAA situation. We want to win every game. I thought we would come out in the second half and play better. We couldn't keep trading baskets with them like we did."
USC Top Scorer: Carlos Powell, 15 points.
UKY Top Scorer: Cliff Hawkins, 21 points.
USC Top Rebounder: Powell, 9.
UKY Top Rebounder: Two with 7.
Halftime: UK, 38-24.
Next Game: Sat. 3/6 at Tennessee, 1:00 p.m. (JP)
SEC SCORES – Wednesday, March 3rd
Florida 63, Georgia 55
LSU 58, Ole Miss 45
Vanderbilt 61, Tennessee 58
Alabama 72, Arkansas 68.
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