LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky basketball keeps proving it is bigger than any one star, and did it again Saturday against South Carolina, but boy did it look for a while like De’Aaron Fox was an irreplaceable piece. The fifth-ranked Wildcats flopped around like a headless fish for a long stretch after Fox left the game with an ankle injury, then gathered themselves for a not-so-scary, 85-69 victory over the 24th-ranked Gamecocks.
Kentucky (17-2, 7-0 SEC) raced out to a 17-point lead in the first nine minutes with its dazzling freshman point guard running the show. He blew by defenders for three consecutive layups before coming up gimpy when he was fouled on the last of those. Soon after he checked out for good with 8:50 to go in the half, South Carolina (15-4, 5-1 SEC) reeled off a 12-0 run aided by five Cats turnovers in two and a half minutes.
The lead was down to just three points and Kentucky had no answer for Gamecocks senior Sindarius Thornwell, who poured in 34 points Saturday. But then Kentucky remembered it has a lot of really good players. Fellow freshman star Malik Monk took up the slack, scoring 10 of his 27 points in the final 3:23 of the first half.
South Carolina never got within a single bucket of the Cats again. Sure, the sight of Fox wearing a protective boot and using crutches to join his team on the bench in the second half is worrisome. But Kentucky is so good, and the rest of the SEC is apparently so far behind, that it might not matter how long he’s out.
Player of the game
Monk shook off maybe his worst game as a Wildcat at Mississippi State on Tuesday night (5 of 14 shooting, 5 turnovers), hitting 9 of 14 shots, 4 of 7 3-pointers and 5 of 6 free throws for 27 points. He helped squash both of South Carolina’s big runs Saturday.
Stat line of the game
Not only did Kentucky lose Fox for most of the game, but it also had guard Mychal Mulder sidelined with an illness and got almost nothing from sophomore Isaiah Briscoe. He followed up his own dud in Starkville with another one against the Gamecocks: 0 points, 7 turnovers. Something is suddenly very off for Kentucky’s leader.
Luckily for the Cats, they have a senior guard on the bench who always seems to be ready when called upon. Dominique Hawkins delivered 5 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds and a steal with Fox and Mulder out of commission.
Kentucky seemed to have stabilized by halftime, stretcing its lead back to nine points, but the Gamecocks wouldn’t go away. They got within four with 17:51 to play in the second half. Then the Wildcats flexed their quick-strike muscles.
Monk slashed to the basket for a three-point play, a Hawkins steal and Bam Adebayo offensive rebound led to a ferocious Derek Willis dunk, and a Monk steal and lob to Willis made it a 7-0 Kentucky run in just 91 seconds. Willis’ first slam in that sequence, over 6-foot-9 Sedee Keita, nearly blew the roof off Rupp Arena – and drew a hilariously animated reaction from the Cats’ bench.
The lead was suddenly 11, and UK was never seriously threatened again.
Derek Willis… HAVE MERCY! pic.twitter.com/tsFY29Py8K
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) January 22, 2017
What’s next for Kentucky basketball
The Wildcats travel to Tennessee (10-9, 3-4 SEC) Tuesday at 9 p.m. (ESPN). Then it’s back home to face No. 2 Kansas next Saturday night at Rupp, where the ESPN GameDay crew will set up shop that morning.
Kentucky vs. South Carolina box score