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February 5, 2012

USC-UK Hoops Extra: Dominated inside



The box score revealed everything needed to know about Saturday's humiliating 86-52 loss to No. 1 Kentucky at Colonial Life Arena.

Kentucky's starting forwards (Terrence Jones, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis) combined for 45 points, 19 rebounds, 10 blocked shots, eight assists and four steals.

All that without committing a single turnover.

Meanwhile, South Carolina's starting front line of Anthony Gill, Malik Cooke and the foul-plagued Damontre Harris combined for 20 points on 7-of-21 shooting, 13 rebounds and seven blocks.

The front-line mismatch was evident from the beginning as Kentucky's taller, faster, more athletic forwards dominated the action from the opening tap with an amazing array of dunks and throwdowns.

Especially Davis, a freshman from Chicago who led the nation in blocked shots per game (4.7), and ranked 16th in rebounds (10.2). He was one of only two players in the SEC averaging a double-double.

"He's a difference maker," USC coach Darrin Horn said. "He's arguably the best player in college basketball because of his ability to impact the game on both ends. A few times our defense was adequate on the drive, but they just throw the ball over the top of you. That makes it difficult. Obviously, we didn't do a good-enough job as we needed to in defending that."

The 6-foot-10 Davis matched his season-high with eight blocks, giving him 116 on the season, breaking Shaquille O'Neal's freshman record for most blocks.

"Because of that (shot-blocking) ability, you can do a great job getting to the rim (but he will disrupt the shot)," Horn said. "The hard part is you try to get him away from the basket, but he still ends up with over four blocks a game. He is just very good at what he does."

Davis was the nation's No. 2 prospect in the 2011-12 recruiting class, while Kidd-Gilchrist was No. 3. In fact, three of the top five prep players in the country signed with Kentucky.

"They are young, but they are extremely talented," Horn said. "They are a much better basketball team than when we played earlier."

USC offered little resistance inside all night long. When the game finally ended, Kentucky had outscored USC 42-14 in the paint (24-6 in the first half) and 19-8 in second chance points.

In the first half when the game was essentially decided (UK led 52-25 at halftime), Jones and Davis combined to shoot 12-of-15 from the field and score 34 of Kentucky's 52 points. Many of those baskets came on alley-oop passes from Kentucky guards, which is why the Wildcats had 12 assists at halftime.

Harris, possibly USC's best forward, exited the game after picking up his second foul with 15:21 remaining in the first half. However, three Kentucky dunks within a span of 70 seconds forced Horn to put Harris back on the floor with 13:42 left.

"Right now, he's a difference-maker for us," Horn said. "Outside of Anthony Davis and some of those guys, he's playing as well for our club as anybody in the league right now. He did that tonight even with the foul trouble."

All those easy baskets are a major reason Kentucky shot a blistering 58.6 percent in the first half. The Wildcats hit four of their first five shots from the field and never looked back.

USC fought to within seven points (25-18) midway through the first half, but Kentucky dominated the remainder of the period, outscoring USC 27-7 over the final 10:31 of the opening half.

"Our guys came out and gave good effort (in the second half), but the onslaught at the beginning was too much to overcome," Horn said. "We didn't play early on with the kind of fight we had to since we were playing the number one team in the country."

PRO-KENTUCKY CROWD: The SEC basketball tournament always features the wildly passionate Kentucky fans capable of taking over an arena. They did it again on Saturday. About 70 percent of the arena was dressed in blue (even some fans in the USC student section wore blue shirts) and the ear-piercing roars of "Go Big Blue!" by the Wildcat faithful shook the building for the entire 40 minutes.

Horn grew up in Lexington, Ky., so the overwhelming presence of blue-clad Kentucky fans inside Colonial Life Arena didn't catch him by surprise.

"I don't think that had anything to do with it. They just played really well," Horn said. "That is a credit to their fan base. It's well-documented and I know that full well growing up in Lexington. That's one of things that makes it a special place from a basketball standpoint. They do that all over the league. That's not unique here."

LEONARD'S LEAP: Freshman guard Damien Leonard scored a season/career-high 19 points on Saturday on 7-of-16 shooting, exceeding his previous high of 16 points. Leonard has struggled from the field all season (30.1 field-goal percentage coming in), but he connected on 4-of-8 3-pointers, one fewer than his season-high of five set on Nov. 25 vs. North Carolina in Las Vegas. Leonard also got multiple baskets driving to the hoop, even against Davis.

The last time Leonard scored in double figures was the SEC opener at Kentucky almost a month ago when USC suffered a 79-64 loss at Rupp Arena in Lexington. Since then, the most points Leonard had scored until Saturday night was six on two occasions, dropping his scoring average (6.0) to its lowest point since the third game of the season.

"The biggest thing is that in the second half, we actually did move the ball really well. We got reversals. We played inside out," Horn said. "We were able to play through Damontre (Harris) some and get the ball in the post. They were doubling him and he could get it back out. When you are driving off of that, whether you are Damien or anyone else, it is a lot easier because (Davis) is not standing there around the basket. He did a better job in the second half of driving the ball of a reversal."

NOTES

-- USC has now suffered five straight losses to Kentucky by an average margin of 22 points per game.

-- USC forced just three Kentucky turnovers, the fewest by a USC opponent this season. Previously, the lowest number of turnovers by a Gamecock foe was eight by USC-Upstate.

-- Saturday's game marked USC's second game this season against the Associated Press' No. 1 ranked team. North Carolina was also top-ranked when USC faced it in Las Vegas in late November. USC is now 1-9 all-time against the AP's No. 1 team.

-- Next game: Feb. 8 at Tennessee, 8 p.m. (SEC Network). USC plays its next two games on the road, with a trip to Arkansas set for Feb. 11. Tip-off for the face-off in Fayetteville, Ark., is 1:30 p.m. After that, USC plays four of five at home.

-- With two road games next week, Horn said the Gamecocks must quickly flush Saturday's 34-point loss and focus on trying to win on the road. "We have to move forward and prepare for two road games this week and stay focused on the things that we have been doing very well and have given us our wins," Horn said.

-- Kentucky coach John Calipari said Saturday's game was the best his 23-1 club had played all season. "The people in South Carolina have to understand, what they saw is absolutely (the best we have played). We played well at LSU, but not like this. ... South Carolina hit us on a bad day because this is as good as we get up to this point, and hopefully we will get better."

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