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Kentucky (25-0) puts chokehold on South Carolina

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- To suggest that Kentucky needs to develop a killer instinct is a bit like saying "The Walking Dead" needs more scenes of zombie executions.

Context matters. The No. 1 Wildcats have played 25 times this season and have walked away unscathed every time.

Still, coming into Saturday's game against South Carolina at Rupp Arena, head coach John Calipari urged his team not to settle for anything but a stranglehold. In Kentucky's previous home outing, it let an 18-point second-half lead evaporate into a two-possession game late against Georgia. On Tuesday night, a 13-point second-half edge at LSU quickly turned into a six-point deficit and one of the Wildcats' biggest scares of the season.

"We kind of get up on teams and get complacent a little bit," center Dakari Johnson said. "So this time we tried to keep our foot on the gas."

The Gamecocks would become roadkill in the process. Kentucky raced out to an 18-3 lead and never looked back in a 77-43 victory. The sheer dominance -- halftime score: 43-18 -- was reminiscent of the Wildcats' signature blowouts over UCLA and Kansas earlier this season. Those lopsided results created an unrealistic expectation that Calipari's team would simply embarrass every opponent on its schedule.

That hasn't happened, and if Kentucky has shown any major weakness -- again, context matters -- it's a tendency to play down to the competition level at times. Calipari said Friday he's concerned the Wildcats will let an opponent hang around in an NCAA tournament game long enough until "the weight of the world is on you now and not on them." Complacency, in fact, might rank as the top obstacle in the way of an undefeated regular season, as four of Kentucky's final six opponents are ranked 74th or lower in the RPI.

The Gamecocks (12-12, 3-9), however, were ripe for the plucking. They've won just three games, none on the road, since an upset of Iowa State in Brooklyn on Jan. 3. They shot just 23.6 percent on Saturday and were outrebounded 45-21.

"We walked in there, and as soon as we got punched, we went down," South Carolina coach Frank Martin said.

That's one reason Calipari seemed nonplussed by the effort, saying at one point in his news conference, "We're a good team. Duh." He's still looking for a serious second-half surge against a team that really brings a fight.

In the meantime, he's discovered a way for the Wildcats to experience losing: in practice, against themselves.

Calipari normally lightens the practice load this time of year to give his players more rest. But last week, he said, he had the team scrimmage each other for an hour on Thursday and again for 15 minutes on Friday. Given Kentucky's boatload of McDonald's All-Americans, those intrasquad scrimmages are more competitive than many of its actual games.

"He's right for going back to that," junior center Willie Cauley-Stein said. "We're back to where we were at the beginning of season, when we were going after each other and we didn't know which platoon was going to start. It just a competitive spirit."

Players described the scrimmages as physical and intense, with loud arguments over fouls and the losing side having to run sprints after practice. Which side emerged victorious last week is a matter of some controversy.

"You know the blue squad [starters] be winning," Cauley-Stein said.

"But they're cheating, man," said Johnson, who insisted his white squad was the legitimate scrimmage champion. "They're fouling like crazy."

"Yeah, but we won," countered point guard Andrew Harrison said. "Dakari's lying. The blue team, we definitely win."

Calipari says he risks an injury with the scrimmages but that his players get bored just doing drills. He plans on staging more next week in practice.

Meanwhile, Kentucky just keeps winning. The Wildcats equaled their best start in school history, matched only by the 1953-54 team that finished its season 25-0. That team chose not to participate in the NCAA tournament because stars Frank Ramsey, Cliff Hagan and Lou Tsioropoulos had already graduated and were ruled ineligible for postseason play. (Imagine that: the program that's most synonymous with the one-and-done system was once penalized for having too much college experience. Four-and-nones, perhaps?)

"I told them, ‘You just tied a record at the most storied program in the country, and you're all freshmen and sophomores and Willie,'" Calipari said.

But records like that, or Calipari's nomination earlier in the day as one of 12 finalists for the 2015 Basketball Hall of Fame class, don't merit much discussion from this group. Larger goals are in play, and if you had any doubt about how serious this season's run is, you needed only to look to the first row of section 215 in Rupp Arena on Saturday.

That's where Heather Burgett and Earl Fields of Hazard, Kentucky, watched the game, less than 24 hours after they got married back home. The seats were a surprise wedding gift from Burgett's uncle, and so Burgett wore her wedding dress and Fields his best suit as they sat on the bleachers.

"We love this team," Fields said. "They're going all the way, and they're going undefeated."

'Til death -- or defeat -- do they part. Now there's a killer instinct for you.