Columbia, SC (SportsNetwork.com) - The top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats put their perfect record on the line on Saturday afternoon, as they invade Colonial Life Arena to take on the South Carolina Gamecocks in an SEC showdown.
John Calipari's Wildcats are one of just two unbeaten teams left in the nation, with second-ranked Virginia being the other. Kentucky is off to its fourth-best start in school history at 18-0. The team moved to a flawless 5-0 in conference play with a hard-fought, 65-57 victory over Vanderbilt last time out.
Frank Martin's Gamecocks were rolling for awhile, with a seven-game win streak spanning the end of November into the new calendar year. Things have changed considerably since SEC play began, as USC has dropped two straight games and four of its last five outings, overall. Most recently, South Carolina fell at home to Tennessee on Tuesday, 66-62 and now stands at just 1-4 in the conference.
Kentucky holds a 48-10 advantage in the all-time series with South Carolina. These two teams will meet again on Feb. 14 in Lexington.
The Commodores gave the Wildcats all they could handle and simply wouldn't go away all game long. However, in the end, Aaron Harrison's big second half proved to be too much, as he led UK to yet another victory. All 14 of Aaron Harrison's points came in the second half to keep Vanderbilt at bay. Dakari Johnson was the only other Wildcat to notch double figures in the win, posting 10 points. Willie Cauley-Stein scored just six points, but did grab a game- high 10 rebounds. Kentucky held Vanderbilt to a modest .415 shooting effort, blocked 11 shots and outscored the Commodores 21-6 at the free-throw line.
Defense is the name of the game in Lexington, as Kentucky ranks second nationally in scoring defense (50.8 ppg) and first in both field-goal percentage defense (.322) and blocked shots (146). With that kind of defensive wizardry, the team doesn't need to put up huge offensive numbers. Still, Kentucky enjoys a +24.7 scoring margin, as the team generates 75.5 ppg. Aaron Harrison leads the team with 11.5 ppg. Devin Booker is the only other Wildcat currently in double digits at 10.4 ppg, although Cauley-Stein (9.4 ppg), Johnson (8.5 ppg) and Karl-Anthony Towns (8.3 ppg) aren't far under that mark.
The Gamecocks fell behind by 17 points in the second half, but rallied down the stretch, pulling within two points, before bowing to the Volunteers in Columbia this week. Tennessee had a hot hand all game long, as the visitors shot a sterling .575 from the floor, bolstered by a 10-of-18 effort from behind the arc. USC made a game of it late however, despite shooting just .343 from the floor overall. Sindarius Thornwell led the way in defeat for South Carolina with 17 points. Demetrius Henry added 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds for the Gamecocks, who remained competitive by forcing 18 turnovers and turning those miscues into 20 points.
Strong defensive play has fueled South Carolina's success this season, as well. The Gamecocks are holding foes to just 61.0 ppg, as opponents are shooting a mere .366 from the field overall. In addition, USC holds a +6.4 rebounding margin and a +1.5 turnover margin. Three of the team's five starters are averaging double digits in the scoring column, led by Duane Notice's 11.9 ppg. Thornwell and Tyrone Johnson round out the productive trio with 11.1 and 10.4 ppg, respectively.