COLUMBIA, S.C. — Jarred Vanderbilt made his much-anticipated debut but Kentucky couldn’t fend off South Carolina and dropped a 76-68 setback Tuesday night.
Kentucky led by 14 with 13 minutes remaining, but the Gamecocks used a 26-8 run to grab the lead for good down the stretch and run their record to 7-1 at home this season. The Wildcats lost their second Southeastern Conference game of the year and fell to 14-4 overall and 4-2 in the league.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said the Wildcats’ performance was a reversal of the team’s shoot-around earlier in the day.
“Having a great shoot-around doesn’t guarantee a great game,” Calipari said. “Going through the motions, not being focused guarantees what happens when the game is in the clutch … all of the sudden you have a bunch of guys who don’t know how to grind it in that situation. You’ve got to stop the bleeding. … This game was ours and all we had to do was grab it.”
Vanderbilt, who missed the first 17 games because of a foot injury, made his first appearance of the season at the 13:09 mark of the first half. Vanderbilt had a turnover, grabbed a rebound and missed two free throws and one field-goal attempt during his first two minutes on the court.
Vanderbilt finished with six points, five rebounds, and three assists. Vanderbilt scored two points, grabbed three rebounds and added an assist in seven minutes in the first half.
“He was pretty good for his first time out, as he was trying to figure out what we were doing,” Calipari said. “We haven’t really scrimmaged with him (in the game). We’ve done some half-court stuff, but I thought he was pretty good for the first time out.”
Kentucky was whistled for 30 fouls as both teams combined for 59 fouls. The Wildcats fired up 36 free throws and made just 23 of those. Wenyen Gabriel fouled out with 7:21 remaining. Nick Richards was whistled for his fifth foul with 2:46 left. Four players finished with four fouls each.
“I’ve never seen so many dumb fouls,” Calipari said. “Like, grab a guy and pull his shirt out. Excuse me, you think this is lacrosse? They looked like fouls every time we reached in. It was was …. This will be a tough second half to watch. First half will be tough to watch, too.”
Kevin Knox led the Wildcats with 21 points, followed by Richards with 12 and PJ Washington with 10.
The Wildcats were without Quade Green (back) and Tai Wynyard (back) for the third straight contest. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander started in place of Green and finished with six points. Green sat out the final six minutes of the first half because of foul trouble.
Gilgeous-Alexander struggled and committed five of his team’s 11 turnovers in the first half and played most of the second half with four fouls. Overall, the Wildcats committed 16 turnovers, including six by Gilgeous-Alexander.
“When we had a point-guard (in the game), he wasn’t very good, either,” Calipari said. “We basically played the whole game without a point guard. We had our chances to win anyway.”
Knox paced the Wildcats with 10 points in the opening half, followed by Richards with eight.
South Carolina led for most of the first half and missed 15 straight field-goal attempts in a 10-minute stretch in the first half, giving the Wildcats an opportunity to recover from a slow start. The Wildcats capitalized on South Carolina’s struggles and led 37-34 at the break.
The hosts shot 33 percent in the first half after making seven of their first 10 field goals and building an early 19-12 advantage.
Kentucky made just one 3-pointer and managed just six offensive rebounds, limiting the Wildcats to just one shot on most possessions.
Chris Silva paced South Carolina (12-6, 3-3) with 27 points, followed by Frank Booker with 18 and Make Kotsar with 12.
“I’m really disappointed, but you’ve got to give South Carolina credit,” Calipari said. “They played like Frank (Martin) coaches. They’re going to get smacked and they never stopped playing, they got the momentum. We’re not there yet and you’ve got to take some losses for guys to start listening … Hopefully, from here we’ll move on from here and get this right.”
Johnson, Quickly All-Americans
Kentucky signees Keldon Johnson and Immanuel Quickley were chosen to compete in the McDonald’s All-American Game on March 28 at Phillips Arena in Atlanta.
Johnson, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard at Oak Hill Academy in Virginia is listed as one of the top prospects in the Class of 2018. Johnson played at Huntington Prep Academy in West Virginia before attending Oak Hill for his senior season. He also was named MVP of the NBPA Top 100 Camp last June.
Quickley, a 6-4 guard at John Carroll School in Bel Air, Maryland, has scored 30 or more points in five games, 20 or more in 14 contests and compiled eight double-doubles this season.
During Calipari’s tenure at Kentucky, 32 players have competed in the prestigious contests.
Gametracker: Florida at Kentucky, 9 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM, WBUL, Lexington.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at email@example.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.