But one SEC team has been, for as long as anyone alive can remember, a power in college basketball, not just in the conference, but on the national scene. From Adolph Rupp, Joe B. Hall, and Eddie Sutton, to Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith, to John Calipari today, the Kentucky Wildcats have been the king of the jungle in the SEC and often in college basketball.
Sure, current #1 Florida has won two national champions in a row under coach Billy Donovan. But Big Blue is still the team by what all other teams measure up to in the SEC. The large UK fan base extends across the country, including a certain women's basketball head coach's daughter in New Jersey (Hi, Sam Bozzella).
At one time, the University of South Carolina was a ACC basketball power under Coach Frank McGuire. McGuire's talented teams would fill up the Carolina Coliseum. Under McGuire, USC had a stretch of four consecutive years of NCAA Tournament appearances and several Gamecock players went on to NBA careers.
In this second season as head coach, Frank Martin has done his best to rejuvenate the basketball program. This season, Martin brought in eight new players; seven freshman and one junior transfer. He has also worked hard to reach out to South Carolina high school coaches to solidify keeping the best players in the state at USC.
Given the facts that the Gamecocks are struggling and Big Blue Nation is only a six hour trip away, it stands to reason that there would be a lot of UK fans at Colonial Life Arena on Saturday. Sure enough as I was about to make my turn onto Park Avenue from Gervais Street, a large contingent of Big Blue Nation fans were walking around the Vista. They were no doubt taking in what all the fine establishments in the area had to offer surely hungry and thirsty customers from the Bluegrass state.
My indoctrination to the Kentucky fan base continued as I parked my car in the Discovery Garage directly across from Colonial Life Arena. Most of the garage customers parking had Kentucky license plates. And as I made my way to the front entrance of the arena, the plaza was full of royal blue.
Second, the arena scoreboard was showing the end of the Clemson-USC baseball game. It might be March Madness, but again, here was living proof that baseball is the favored son in March in Columbia. The Gamecock baseball team won, pounding the Tigers 10-2.
As we got closer to game time, the South Carolina fans started filling in. By game time, the announced attendance of 15,000 seemed about fifty-fifty as far as fans, though when the USC student section booed the Kentucky players coming onto the court, Big Blue Nation drowned them out with their cheers.
My friend Ian McCormick came over to say hi and once he found out I had an extra seat, since my color analyst, aka my older son Matthew, wasn't there since he had a friend staying overnight at our house, Ian settled in to my other season ticket holder seat.
The Wildcats outscored the Gamecocks 10-4 over the next six minutes to go up 18-12. James Young capped the mini spurt with a jumper, which gave him seven points to lead the Cats at that point, But the pace actually favored South Carolina as the teams struggled to score and for a while, based on Ian's statistics (he keeps track of every possession), it was on a pace for a forty possession game.
Kentucky maintained their lead, as their next seven points all came at the line to put them up 25-21. Meanwhile, Sindarius Thornwell and Brenton Williams were directly or indirectly responsible for twelve of their next fourteen points scored after being down 18-12. It was a Thornwell three, followed by Williams assisting on a Duane Notice jumper for for a 5-0 mini-spurt to give the lead back to South Carolina 26-25 and igniting the Gamecocks fans in the crowd.
The Gamecocks defensive effort in the first twenty minutes resulted in Kentucky, the second highest scoring team in the conference, shooting five of twenty seven from the field. However, the first half intensive effort combined with Kentucky's relentlessness on the boards resulted in a major foul problem for the Gamecocks, especially for the USC front court. Carrera, Mindaugas Kacinas and Desmond Ringer each picked up three fouls in the first twenty minutes. Demetrius Henry and Thornwell each had two fouls as the Gamecocks committed fourteen fouls in the first half.
The second half continued the foul fest as Kacinas quickly picked up his fourth forty five seconds into the half. But the Gamecocks, especially Williams, started feeling it from the field. He hit a jumper to put South Carolina up five, which would start a 15-4 run over the span of a little less than six minutes. Williams would cap that run with a three pointer to put the Gamecocks up 48-32 with 14:18 left and Colonial Life Arena became unglued. Williams scored eleven of those fifteen points during that spurt.
Finally four minutes later, after a Duane Notice steal, where he thought there should have been a foul called, Calipari had had enough. He said something to the official running by, who stopped in his tracks and gave Calipari his second technical. The South Carolina fans roared in approval as he exited the court.
But entering Saturday evening's game, Kentucky was nationally ranked for a reason. Likewise, South Carolina was 3-12 in SEC play for a reason. And both those factors came to a head, making for an exciting finish.
Kentucky started putting South Carolina's foul trouble to work, scoring the next six straight points from the line, while South Carolina went 0 for 5 from the field. Then Aaron Harrison buried a three pointer and just like that, the Wildcats had a 9-0 run and the Gamecocks' lead was now only seven, 55-48 with 7:20 left. There was plenty of time left for Kentucky to complete the rally and their Big Blue fans roared in support, forcing the South Carolina to counter in decibel levels.
With the return of Desmond Ringer from injury,
But in the last three minutes of Saturday's game, the six foot eleven sophomore forward became ten feet tall in the eyes of his teammates, the Gamecock fans and most importantly, to the Wildcats. First, Chatkevicius grabbed a huge offensive rebound off a wild Thornwell three point shot attempt and got fouled while shooting the putback. Normally a fifty six percent free throw shooter, which made Ian very nervous, he calmly sank both free throws to put the Gamecocks up five.
Later after Aaron Harrison had cut the lead to four, Chatkevicius grabbed another offensive rebound and softly hit the put back to put the Gamecocks back up six. Then after Young buried another three pointer to cut the South Carolina lead in half, again, the Gamecocks' Lithuanian hero hit a jumper to put South Carolina up five, 66-61. In the span of two plus minutes, Chatkevicius had six points, two more than his season average.
Brenton Williams then stole the ball from Young, was fouled and hit both free throws to put Carolina up seven, 68-61 with thirty three seconds left. The students sensing the upset, swelled to the edge of the court near the Carolina Girls seats. The public address announcer sensed it too, asking the fans to not storm the court.
Kentucky would not go quietly into the court rush however. Aaron Harrison was somehow left open and buried a three pointer. Then off a inbounds steal by Young, Julius Randle hit a layup and one. He hit the free throw and in the span of seven seconds, Kentucky had scored six straight points and cut the deficit to one, 68-67.
Well we got our answer after the timeout. Alex Poythress, a twenty eight percent three point shooter, who had attempted just twenty shots from beyond the arc all season, put up a three point attempt with twelve seconds left. His shot missed, much to the chagrin of Associate Head Coach David Hobbs, who was now in charge with Calipari gone. The Gamecocks grabbed the rebound and Williams was fouled by Aaron Harrison, who fouled out, just like Cauley-Stein did earlier.
Williams led all scorers with twenty four points. Thornwell added fourteen points, Carrera had eleven points and the hero of the day, Chatkevicius had eight points. Aaron Harrison led the Wildcats with twenty one points, Young added nineteen and Randle had ten for Kentucky. Kentucky only shot twenty seven percent from the field, though they had twenty one offensive rebounds, as they outrebounded South Carolina 46-28.
It was certainly a foul fest on Saturday night. The teams combined for fifty five fouls and seventy five free throw attempts. Kentucky was 33 of 42 from the line, while South Carolina shot a solid 25 of 33 from the line.
To me, the court rush signaled two things about the program and college basketball. First, if Martin's team becomes successful, this can be the kind of electricity that the basketball program will generate, because the fan support is there. Baseball regularly sells out its eight thousand seat stadium and of course, Williams-Brice Stadium sells out to the tune of 80,000 strong.
specially since a New Mexico State player incited it by throwing a basketball at a Utah Valley player. I have not heard of any other games where there has been a problem. I, for one, think court rushes are fine. It's a spontaneous celebration of achievement. And the home players generally love celebrating their achievement with the fans.
And Saturday night, a large group of South Carolina fans got to celebrate on the court an upset of large proportions. The once last place SEC team knocked off mighty Big Blue Nation, the preseason #1 team in the country. Finally Gamecocks basketball fans had their moment of achievement. Mind you, it's not making the Final Four, let alone making the NCAA Tournament, which are both Frank Martin's goals.
But you have to start somewhere and Saturday night, Colonial Life was somewhere. Somewhere special.