Rakym Felder picked up a loose ball around the right wing and casually tossed it through the hoop before exiting the floor to a round of cheers. Just 20 minutes earlier, Brian Bowen was giving the early arriving crowd at Colonial Life Arena something to applaud by making a series of mid-range jumpers.
Bowen and Felder weren’t available for South Carolina when the Gamecocks tipped off with No. 18 Kentucky on Tuesday night. The two, one a recent transfer and the other a January re-enrollee, only warmed up and sat on stools beyond the USC bench, watching Frank Martin sub in player after player.
Martin’s patience and depth was tested repeatedly in a game that featured close to 60 fouls. When it was all over, Felder and Bowen were finally sent to the floor – to celebrate a monster victory.
South Carolina 76, Kentucky 68
USC improved to 12-6 and 3-3 in the SEC. The Wildcats dropped to 14-4 and 4-2.
Carolina broke a four-game losing streak to UK with a furious second half comeback. Down by 14 with 11:34 left, the Gamecocks, relying on Chris Silva, Frank Booker and Wes Myers, caught fire and allowed 16,210 spectators to join them for the ride.
“It was an amazing environment,” Booker said. “Couldn’t ask for a better environment. We were down and they stayed in it with us and they picked us up. We can’t appreciate them enough and we just hope they keep bringing the energy because it really helped us out tonight.”
From the beginning – when the Gamecocks got out to a 7-0 lead – to the middle – when they struggled again to shoot and trailed by three at halftime – to the end – when they made nine of their final 10 free throws to seal a memorable come-from-behind win.
Silva scored 27 points and grabbed eight rebounds, Booker added 18 points and Myers saved six of his nine points for the final 4:02.
A Myers layup capped a 22-8 run and tied things at 65. His jumper at the 3:25 mark put Carolina ahead for the last time. The shot echoed Martin’s message in a media timeout just 40 seconds earlier.
“You guys battled your tails off to get back in this game,” Martin told the Gamecocks. “Now let’s be disciplined and let’s win the game.”
The Wildcats were held without a field goal for the final 6:12. USC outscored UK 18-3 during the stretch.
“Coming down the last four minutes, defensively our attention to detail was on point,” Martin said. “Offensively, even though we missed some stuff, we scored enough to win. We took good shots, we didn’t turn it over.”
Kentucky closed as only a 2-point favorite to beat Carolina. The Wildcats, again freshman-heavy, are loaded in talent, but lack a true No. 1 to rival a Malik Monk or Tyler Ulis from great teams past.
USC, with Silva, had an edge there. The 6-foot-9, 223-pound All-SEC candidate was the most dominating presence on the floor. When Silva wasn’t dunking (see three slams), he was causing whistles.
The junior set game-highs in free throws made (nine) and attempted (13). UK’s 6-11 Nick Richards fouled out with 2:47 remaining.
“Silva was the difference,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari. “He manhandled everyone we put on him. He bullied them, he moved them and dominated them.”
South Carolina, with 38 attempts, took at least 35 FTs for a second straight game. Kentucky, which was led by Kevin Knox’s 21 points and eight rebounds, took 36 free throws.
Fifty-nine fouls were called, including 31 in a first half that put the USC faithful through wave of emotions. The Gamecocks made seven of their first nine shots – teasing a change in offensive performance from the worst shooting performance of the season at Georgia – before missing their next 15.
The Wildcats led 37-34 at the break. They were up 57-43 under nine minutes later.
“When we were struggling there in the second half and going through that moment,” Martin said, “we made a shot and then we got a stop and the crowd started going nuts. And it gave our guys life, that, ‘You know what? Our responsibility here is for a lot of people. We got to do more.’
“And it rattled Kentucky, and that gave us an opportunity to get back in the game.”
USC next hosts No. 21 Tennessee on Saturday.
South Carolina 76, Kentucky 68
KENTUCKY (14-4): Washington 2-3 6-10 10, Richards 5-7 2-2 12, Knox 6-16 8-10 21, Diallo 1-5 3-6 5, Gilgeous-Alexander 3-9 0-0 6, Killeya-Jones 2-2 1-3 5, Gabriel 1-1 1-1 3, Vanderbilt 2-5 2-4 6, Calipari 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 22-49 23-36 68.
SOUTH CAROLINA (12-6): Kotsar 3-4 6-9 12, Minaya 1-8 1-2 4, Silva 9-17 9-13 27, Myers 3-9 2-3 9, Hinson 1-2 0-0 3, Haase 1-3 0-0 2, Cudd 0-1 0-0 0, Doumbia 0-0 1-2 1, Gueye 0-0 0-2 0, Booker 5-12 6-7 18, Gravett 0-2 0-0 0, Beatty 0-3 0-0 0. Totals 23-61 25-38 76.
Halftime: Kentucky 37-34. 3-Point Goals: Kentucky 1-11 (Knox 1-8, Washington 0-1, Gilgeous-Alexander 0-1, Calipari 0-1), South Carolina 5-23 (Booker 2-9, Hinson 1-2, Myers 1-4, Minaya 1-4, Haase 0-1, Gravett 0-1, Beatty 0-2). Fouled Out: Haase, Gabriel, Diallo, Richards. Rebounds: Kentucky 34 (Knox 8), South Carolina 32 (Silva 8). Assists: Kentucky 7 (Vanderbilt 3), South Carolina 11 (Gravett 5). Total Fouls: Kentucky 32, South Carolina 27.