Joe steals the show in South Carolina

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The South Carolina student section donned T-shirts honoring Carolina’s lone senior, Dwayne Day, during his final home game last night. The shirts said it was “Dwayne’s Day.”

But it was not. It was Joe Crawford’s.

The senior guard scored a career-high 35 points to lead the Cats to a 71-63 defeat of South Carolina last night at the Colonial Center in Columbia, S.C.

Crawford was 10-of-19 from the field, including 4-of-7 from behind the arc.

“I took some shots and missed a couple (early), but I saw that my shot was going to be there the whole game,” Crawford said. “So I just stayed aggressive.”

He was so aggressive that at one point, Crawford fired up a shot from almost half court that just missed going in.

“I was really disappointed he missed that 42-foot shot,” head coach Billy Gillispie said.

“I actually got fouled on that one,” Crawford said with a laugh.

The senior guard has taken his game to a new level on the road this season.

Last night marked his sixth 20-point game outside of Rupp Arena on the year, and he’s averaging 19 points in road and neutral games this season.

“I know it’s going to be a tougher game, some of the young players aren’t going to be as confident, and I get the ball more,” Crawford said of playing on the road. “I take advantage of my opportunities.”

With 10 minutes left to play, it looked like the Cats (17-11, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) would coast to a victory on Crawford’s back. Then, the Gamecocks, who made just 13 of their first 33 shots, caught fire.

UK’s lead was as wide as 16 in the second half before South Carolina (13-16, 5-10 SEC) cut it to five with just over four minutes to play.

But close games are hardly terra incognita for the Cats, who’ve now won their 11 SEC games by a combined 65 points, and senior guard Ramel Bradley responded — with a little help from above.

With the shot clock under five seconds, Bradley shot a long 3-pointer. It hit off the back iron, then off the glass, rolled around the rim and fell into the basket. It stretched the UK lead to eight, and South Carolina was finished.

“Shooter’s bounce mixed with a little bit of the basketball gods,” Bradley said of the shot.

Bradley and Crawford carried the Cats, scoring 55 of UK’s 71 points, including 33 of its 37 second-half points.

“Two guys combine for 55 out of 71 — that’s not the way you’d like to have it,” Gillispie said. “But you love to have two guys score 55.”

Gillispie said his seniors have almost willed UK through this season, in which six of the top seven scorers have missed at least one game because of injury.

While UK’s top two scorers were lighting up the Gamecocks, South Carolina’s leading scorer couldn’t get going. Sophomore guard Devan Downey, who lit up UK for 24 points more than a month ago, scored just nine points last night.

“We started out great,” Gillispie said. “We really did a great job on the ball screen, and it’s really such a difficult team to guard. They really put so much pressure on your defense. We were able to get off to a great start because we really helped each other.”

The win moved the Cats to 11-4 in the SEC, and they will control their own destiny Sunday against Florida. With a win, the Cats will clinch the second seed in the East Division and earn a bye in the first round of the SEC Tournament.

But this win meant more than that for UK. It was its first victory without freshman forward Patrick Patterson, something the Cats needed to prove, Crawford said.

“We can win without Pat,” Crawford said. “That’s the question everyone was asking. We’re a stronger team with Pat, but we can still win ball games.”

And for the first time all season, Gillispie almost let out a sales pitch to the NCAA Tournament committee.

“I don’t think anyone can ignore what this team has done in conference play,” Gillispie said. “It’s a great story because … no matter what happens, they won’t let it bother them. And it’s fun.”