Gamecocks host Kentucky

The Gamecocks (19-6, 8-4 SEC) look to set several milestones Wednesday night when they host Kentucky (19-8, 8-4 SEC). A win would give Carolina its first 20 win regular season since 2003-04, first winning conference record since 1997-98, and first season sweep of the Wildcats since 1996-97. Of course, Kentucky will have a thing or two to say about whether Carolina reaches those landmarks.

The Gamecocks (19-6, 8-4 SEC) look to set several milestones Wednesday night when they host Kentucky (19-8, 8-4 SEC). A win would give Carolina its first 20 win regular season since 2003-04, first winning conference record since 1997-98, and first season sweep of the Wildcats since 1996-97. Of course, Kentucky will have a thing or two to say about whether Carolina reaches those landmarks.

Kentucky is the standard-bearer for basketball programs not just in the SEC, but all over the country. The Wildcats have more basketball wins than any program in the country (1,985), and year in and year out are among the favorites to win the SEC.

"When I came here, I came here to build a program," said Darrin Horn, a Lexington, Kentucky native. "Doing that is a process, and that process is you take care of what you can take care of and you control what you can control so that one day, eventually over a period time, you hope that you're Kentucky. You hope that you're the team that's picked first or second every year in the league race."

Thanks to Florida's Tuesday night loss at LSU, South Carolina and Kentucky enter the game tied for first place in the SEC East. With four games left, the Gamecocks could still finish anywhere from first to fifth in the division. They are the Wildcats' statistical equals, but nobody would argue that Carolina and Kentucky share equal billing in the college basketball landscape.

"We're not there yet," Horn said. "We're getting to play for it, which is great, and we're ahead of schedule, but the important thing is that the guys continue to learn the process."

Wednesday night's game may be the biggest game at Colonial Life Arena since it opened (although next Thursday's game against Tennessee could have something to say about that). Horn has preached all year that the Gamecocks must approach each game the same way. At the same time, he admits that a game like this is more important than the others.

"We acknowledge it without question," he said. "All we can control is what we can control, and so our focus needs to be on basketball."

When the Gamecocks and Wildcats first met this season, on January 31, Carolina eked out a 78-77 win. Patrick Patterson and Jodie Meeks scored 28 and 20 points respectively to lead Kentucky, but Devan Downey hit a turnaround jumper with three seconds left to pull off the upset. Horn predicted a similarly tight game for Wednesday.

"Everybody's got a wrinkle here and a wrinkle there after two or three weeks and the second time around, but their strengths are their strengths the same way our strengths are our strengths," he said.

"It's much more concerning to me as a coach to know they have two guys that can get 50 for sure, and all these other guys who are capable of doing really well whether they have or not."

One of the "other guys" Horn was referring to is freshman Darius Miller. Miller averages just 4.8 points per game this season, but he has come on strong over the past three games, averaging just less than 10 points per game. In his last outing against Tennessee, Miller posted career highs of 17 points and 6 assists. Sophomore A.J. Stewart has also come on of late. After not scoring a point in SEC play, including not playing in two games, Stewart has averaged over six points a game over the last three, including a career-high 11 against Vanderbilt.

"The first time we played them, all anybody wanted to talk about was Patterson and Meeks," Horn recalled. "What I worried about most was their depth, and that they had guys who could do what Miller has done recently. I don't think he's the only one."

The previous game against Kentucky is far from the only game when Carolina has been forced to win at the end. In fact, if there is a trademark of this year's squad, it is that ability to come through in the clutch. Carolina has won five games this year on last second shots or in overtime, and has lost just one such game (82-80 at College of Charleston). The loss to the Cougars was the first tight game of the season for Carolina, and Horn saw something at the end of the next close game, at Baylor, that told him this was a team that knew how to win in the clutch.

"Late in that game, there was a lot of talk and a lot of positive energy in huddles about what we needed to do, how hard we had worked, and who needed to do what," Horn recalled. "That was the first time that I saw it in those situations."



Notes:
- Downey will likely reach another milestone Wednesday night. He is eight points shy of scoring 1,500 for his career.
- After selling out just once in the history of Colonial Life Arena, the Gamecocks are poised to have their third straight capacity crowd. Officially, all 18,000 seats were filled against Georgia (although there were still some empty seats), and 16,507 saw the Gamecocks edge Arkansas, a virtual sellout. The Kentucky game has not officially been declared a sellout, but tickets will be very hard to come by.
- Tipoff is at 7:00 PM. The game will be televised by Raycom.

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