Kentucky's season went from on the brink to off the rails on Tuesday as the 19.5-point favorite Wildcats fell at home in a stunner to unranked South Carolina 71-68. The loss snapped Kentucky's 28-game home winning streak at Rupp Arena that was the longest running streak in the SEC and dropped the Wildcats to 1-3 in conference play for the first time since the 1986-87 season. The disastrous loss comes only days after falling by 26 points to Alabama -- its largest margin of defeat in the century-long series against the Crimson Tide -- on Saturday.
The Wildcats have struggled at various points throughout the season, either on offense or defense, but Tuesday against the Gamecocks was a combination of everything going wrong at all times. South Carolina scorched the nets from 3, smashed on the offensive boards and raked in 21 second-chance points in a wire-to-wire win in front of the UK faithful. And each time the Wildcats were on the prowl lurking to make things tight, South Carolina seemed to have an answer all the way to the end.
South Carolina got 26 big ones from Meechie Johnson -- a new career-high -- in an out-of-his-mind scoring performance on the road to pull off the upset. Johnson hit six of his 10 3-point attempts, including an absurd stepback from deep range late in the second half and another from close to the logo to cushion the lead as UK was pushing to make it closer. Star freshman GG Jackson also added two 3s on two attempts and contributed 16 points on 6-of-10 shooting.
When you got it going, you just got it going. 🤷♂️— Gamecock Men's Basketball (@GamecockMBB) January 11, 2023
🏹 @MeechieJohnson0 🥷
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South Carolina was as scorching hot as Kentucky was ice cold in yet another flat performance from the Wildcats. Even with reigning Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe, UK got worked on the boards and the offensive glass, and got no help from the offensive side of things to even out the scales. The team took only 10 3s and made three, a confounding strategy by a team that statistically rates as one of the best 3-point shooting teams of the Calipari era.
Compounding matters, freshman star Cason Wallace, the team's best 3-point shooter by percentage, left midway through the game with an injury and did not return.
Here are three takeaways from the game.
1. Pressure on Calipari intensifies
John Calipari denied reports this week that Texas officials had contacted him about its head coaching vacancy after firing Chris Beard. But that was about as fortuitous a distraction as possible for the Hall of Fame coach. After falling to No. 15 seed Saint Peter's in the NCAA Tournament, Big Blue Nation has been Big Mad Nation aimed at Calipari, and the 10-6 start to 2022-23 -- despite opening the season as a top-five team -- has only intensified the pressure on him. It'd be one thing if the talent wasn't there, but this roster has plenty of pieces. The effort, though, seems to wax and wane intermittently and the system -- the spacing, the pacing, the 3-point attempts -- seem to be off, too. It's never good when your own fanbase is making signs for you to leave. (And even worse when your school officials have to go full New York Knicks to defend the coach by booting a fan out of the arena.)
Fan escorted out of Rupp after holding up a “Please go to Texas” sign during the South Carolina game… pic.twitter.com/llCn4A3WJn— Sophie Meadors (@SophieMeadors) January 11, 2023
2. Kentucky's foul shooting struggles continue
After hitting seven of its 14 attempts vs. South Carolina, Kentucky is now hitting on a woeful 65.6% from the charity stripe on the season -- a mark that ranks third-worst in the SEC and near the 300 mark nationally (out of 363 Division I teams). Four of Kentucky's six losses on the season have been by double figures, so it's not the singular thing that's keeping it from winning, but make no mistake: it is a massive problem. On Tuesday, it was quite literally the difference between a win and another painstaking loss.
3. What's next for Kentucky?
The CBS Sports college basketball staff went on record earlier Tuesday to game out how the rest of Kentucky's season would unfold, and I was the high guy of the bunch. Then they turned around and lost to arguably the least-talented team in the SEC at home. So what's next for Kentucky? There's no reprieve in sight. Saturday is a road matchup against Tennessee and its elite defense that's likely to make this UK system look even more broken.
There's room to be optimistic here that Kentucky can turn things around, but there's no real basis on which you can lay that belief. It's just simply that ... things can't get much worse. This is a top-three roster by talent in the SEC. It has no business fumbling games away at home to South Carolina as a 19.5-point favorite. Surely things will get better. They're almost certain to get better. But whether that's a turn towards the path of a tourney bid remains up for debate, and things seem much more grim Tuesday night than they did even a few days ago.