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By Tom Hurley | @TomHurleyKernel
Five players scored in double figures as strong defense and sharp shooting led the Cats to a 77-55 win over South Carolina at Rupp Arena on Tuesday night.
Coupled with Florida’s loss to Arkansas, the win puts the Cats one game out of first place in the SEC.
“We’re coming together slowly but surely,” said graduate student guard Julius Mays. “I think we’re maybe a step or two from being where we want to be.”
South Carolina (12-10, 2-7 SEC) struggled to penetrate UK’s perimeter defense, relying on deep twos and the three-ball to stay in the game early.
Five UK turnovers in six possessions allowed the Gamecocks to take an 18-17 lead midway through the opening stanza.
UK head coach John Calipari responded by sending freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein into the game while leaving freshman center Nerlens Noel on the floor.
Cauley-Stein displayed no ill effects from his recent knee surgery, energetically running down the court, playing with authority down low and even diving to the floor to reach a loose ball.
Calipari’s move to have his “twin towers” on the floor sparked a 16-2 run as South Carolina’s offense were repeatedly thwarted by the Cats’ defense.
“Willie Cauley was unbelievable,” Calipari said.
Also making an impact was Ryan Harrow, who looked like a different player.
“I’m more confident, trying to play better defense, trying to run the team better,” Harrow said. ”I still have a ways to go … but I think I made a lot of strides from where I was at the beginning of the season.”
Harrow finished a perfect 6-of-6 from the field, tallying 12 points and four assists.
UK continued to deny the Gamecocks’ routes to the paint on defense, Noel and Cauley-Stein swatting the ball away with ease against their smaller opponents.
Cauley-Stein, Harrow, Mays and freshman forward Alex Poythress were a combined 10-of-10 from the field as the Cats closed out the first half, leading 45-24.
Calipari, mindful of the Cats’ trend this season to allow opponents back into the game after holding a big lead, kept on top of his players as the second half wore on.
“I got a little mean in the second half,“ Calipari said. “I don’t want to coach this team this way because if they don’t want to bring it, that’s on them. I don’t want to coach emotion.”
The Gamecocks managed to shrink the lead to 15 points, but Calipari rotated through his lineup in order to stem any comeback.
“We broke down a little bit in the second half,” Calipari said. “They got it to 15 and (I) had to sub a bunch of guys out. No energy, no intensity, just playing.”
Mays led the team in scoring with 15 points, all four of his field goals coming from behind the arc.
Goodwin and Cauley-Stein finished with 13 points each. Noel had five blocks to go along with his 10 rebounds and 10 points.
The Cats will look to build on the momentum when they host Auburn on Saturday. Tipoff at Rupp Arena is set for 4 p.m.