COLUMBIA, S.C. -- When Kentucky’s John Calipari scolded his young basketball team for its sloppy play in the final minutes of Saturday night’s 67-58 victory at South Carolina, he was reminded of how young the Wildcats really are.
“The reason it got a little hairy was because we didn’t understand we could still lose the game,” Calipari said. “They’re not veteran enough.”
The Wildcats led 61-45 with less than 3 1/2 minutes to go. But then South Carolina, which entered the game tied for the SEC East lead at 3-1, scored 11 straight points to make it 61-56 with 1:16 left, with the Gamecocks’ final three points coming on foul shots after freshman Doron Lamb fouled Eric Smith on a 3-pointer.
The Wildcats finally pulled away by making 6 of 8 foul shots in the final 50.7 seconds.
“You can’t make the errors we made down the stretch,” Calipari said.
Fouling Smith on a 3-pointer wasn’t the only cardinal sin the Wildcats committed in the closing minutes.
“We shot two shots with a minute to go,” Calipari said.
“Why would you do that?” Calipari asked his players in the locker room after the game.
Their response: “Well, I was open.”
“No kidding,” Calipari told them. “They want you to shoot.”
The Wildcats’ youth and inexperience were evident in their first two SEC road losses: 77-70 at Georgia on Jan. 8 and 68-66 at Alabama on Tuesday night.
In their most recent defeat, the Wildcats fell behind 37-30 at the half and then the Tide opened the second half with a 15-2 run. When the Cats finally decided they were going to play hard enough to win, it was too late.
“We’re getting better,” Calipari said. “We’re maybe a little bit different of a team than I thought. We might be more of an execution team that has to grind it out more than I would like, but if that’s how we have to play, that’s how we’ll play.”
A year ago, the Wildcats were equally as young, but often relied on the God-given abilities of freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins to run opponents off the floor.
UK’s freshman class of point guard Brandon Knight, forward Terrence Jones and Lamb is really good. Knight and Jones might end up becoming NBA lottery picks this spring. But Knight isn’t as good as Wall was the previous season, and Jones isn’t nearly as good as Cousins.
And Patrick Patterson isn’t here to help mold this UK team together, either.
“Listen: They want to please me and I’m hard on them,” Calipari said.
Calipari seemed to be getting through on Saturday night, and he didn’t even have to scream profanities to do it.
After allowing the accuracy-deficient Crimson Tide to make 7 of 14 3-pointers four days earlier, the Wildcats locked down the Gamecocks from the start. South Carolina shot 32 percent in the first half and 33.3 percent in the game. The Gamecocks went 3-for-18 on 3-pointers.
“We really wanted to keep them out of the lane and rebound,” said junior guard Darius Miller, who scored 18 points on 7-for-12 shooting. “We wanted to force them into tough shots.”
Junior guard DeAndre Liggins led the defensive charge, hounding Carolina point guard Bruce Ellington throughout the game. Ellington played only eight minutes in the first half because of foul trouble, and then picked up his fourth foul on a technical when he flipped a basketball at Liggins in frustration.
“That was mostly DeAndre,” Miller said. “He did a great job and always does a great job locking down the other team’s best player. He always locks them down.”
Calipari also implored Miller to be more involved on offense.
“I just want him to be aggressive,” Calipari said. “He doesn’t have to make every shot. I just want him to be aggressive because I think he’s that good. Today he looked like one of the best players in our league.”
And once again, the Wildcats looked like perhaps the best team in the SEC, whatever that means this season.
“I’m trying to figure out the team,” Calipari said. “I still haven’t figured it out.”