SEC Basketball

Kentucky smoked by South Carolina before 'GameDay' trip to Arkansas

South Carolina forward Josh Gray (33) dunks over Kentucky guard Reed Sheppard, left, and forward Tre Mitchell (4) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024, in Columbia, S.C. (AP Photo/Artie Walker Jr.)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina coach Lamont Paris thought about what he would say if told a year ago during his 21-loss first season that his Gamecocks would follow with 16 wins, including a double-digit victory over No. 6 Kentucky.

“I'd probably say, ‘Where are we ranked?’” Paris said before cracking a smile. “I'm just kidding.”

It might not be too long before he finds out after his surprising turnaround season continued with a 79-62 victory over the Wildcats on Tuesday night.

Ta'Lon Cooper tied his career best with 20 points and Jacobi Wright added 14 with 4 three-pointers as the Gamecocks (16-3, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) beat their highest ranked opponent since toppling undefeated No. 1 Kentucky at home 68-62 in 2010.

In that game, South Carolina overcame future NBA All-Stars John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins for the victory.

In this one, they held the nation’s top scoring team that averaged more than 91 points to its lowest output of the season.

South Carolina players “have a lot of belief, a lot of belief in themselves,” Paris said.

They also have the best defense in the SEC, which kept the highest scoring offense in the game in Kentucky (14-4, 4-2) in check much of the contest.

“We drove it and we weren't physical enough to hold our ground,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.

Fans easily burst through the thin yellow ropes to rush the court and celebrate the latest high point in surprising season. It should cost South Carolina a $100,000 fine from the SEC under league policy, but no one was concerned about that at the moment.

“It's never happened” before, Gamecocks senior forward Josh Gray said. “That was a great experience.”

It's the third straight loss at South Carolina for the Wildcats (14-4, 4-2) and fourth in their last seven meetings in the series.

It sure didn't look like the Wildcats would struggle in this one. Kentucky hit five straight shots on the way to a 21-16 lead midway through the opening period.

But South Carolina and its SEC-leading defense kicked in after that to close the period on a 17-4 run.

The Wildcats missed nine of their final 10 shots of the period and were held to their lowest scoring half of the season.

Antonio Reeves, Kentucky's leading scorer at 19.6 points a game, shook off a 1-for-7 shooting first half with seven points early after halftime and the Wildcats were within 40-38 with 15:04 to play.

But the Gamecocks took off again on a 22-6 run to open an 18-point lead with less than eight minutes left.

Kentucky could not get within single digits the rest of the way.

The sold-out crowd — Colonial Life Arena seats 18,000 — was encouraged to wear black. The fans, including football coach Shane Beamer, yelled and screamed as time ticked down on the victory.

THE BIG PICTURE

Kentucky: The Wildcats had no answer when their shots didn't fall, often leaving South Carolina players open near the basket for easy buckets or offensive rebounds. Kentucky shot just 3 of 11 on three-pointers while giving up 10 long-range goals to South Carolina.

South Carolina: It may be time to take the Gamecocks more seriously. The team's 13-1 start was its best in eight years, but they didn't have the marquee wins to gain notice. They do now.

POLL POSITION

South Carolina had been receiving votes in the past few polls before getting none in the latest rankings released Monday. Take care of business Saturday at home against Missouri and the Gamecocks might break into the Top 25 for the first time since 2016-17, when they reached the Final Four.

UP NEXT

Kentucky plays at Arkansas on Saturday night. ESPN "College GameDay" will be on site before the game.

South Carolina hosts Missouri on Saturday.