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Kentucky locks down South Carolina: 4 takeaways & postgame talk

Kentucky’s defense remains locked-in as they take down South Carolina for their ninth-straight victory.

NCAA Basketball: South Carolina at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Big Blue Nation has enjoyed four consecutive weeks of watching their Kentucky Wildcats win games.

The Wildcats put their eight-game winning streak on the line as they played host to the South Carolina Gamecocks on Tuesday night.

Once again, Kentucky started out slow while their opponent mysteriously caught fire from behind the arc. This time, it was Kentucky’s reserves who weathered the storm. Heading into halftime, Kentucky held a 39-28 lead over the Gamecocks.

In the second half, Kentucky continued their strong effort on defense en route to a 76-48 victory.

Wildcats Surge Forward

Behind reigning Co-SEC Player of the Week PJ Washington, who scored 20 points on Tuesday night, the Wildcats won their ninth-straight game this season. Not all of their victories have been spectacular for the full 40 minutes, but the Wildcats have proved they can win in any fashion.

When head coach John Calipari’s team is struggling to score, each player has shown they can lock down on defense until the offensive spark comes. The ability for each of Calipari’s players to accept coaching shows how committed the team is to winning.

Kentucky is just a couple of games away from their premiere matchup against the Tennessee Volunteers. While many fans and members of the media are looking forward to next Saturday, the Wildcats will continue to follow their model of taking one game at a time.

Defensive Trend Continues

Their offensive execution wasn’t pretty, but Kentucky’s defense on Tuesday night remained in sync with recent performances. The Wildcats held their opponent to less than 65 points for the fifth-straight contest.

Specifically, Kentucky held South Carolina to 36% from the floor and 29% from behind the arc while forcing 18 turnovers. Kentucky’s big men indeed committed 12 fouls but South Carolina only shot 14 free throws to mirror the Wildcats’ discipline around the rim.

Kentucky’s offense won’t always struggle but, when it does, it’s comforting to know their defensive backbone is as strong as any in the SEC.

Reserves Spark First Half Energy

Following the game’s first five minutes, Kentucky’s starters looked to mentally check in and out of the game while still physically standing on the court. Calipari instantly took notice and quickly went to his reserves.

A group of Immanuel Quickley, Jemarl Baker, Keldon Johnson (the lone starter), EJ Montgomery and Nick Richards led an all-out effort to bring Kentucky back into the game. Baker confidently swished multiple jump shots while Quickley calmly ran the offense. Montgomery and Richards each dominated the paint, winning every 50-50 battle for loose balls and rebounds.

This is the contribution, as a whole, Calipari has been looking for. Competing for a national championship takes more than five players and, on Tuesday night, the Wildcats proved they can go eight or nine deep at any time.

Hagans Slumps On

Since taking over Kentucky’s point guard duties, Ashton Hagans has been mostly prolific at both ends of the court. He’s been a pest on defense and ran the team’s scoring unit on offense. However, his previous two games have been rather underwhelming.

At Florida on Saturday, Hagans was pulled multiple times early on in both periods for what appeared to be a lack of focus. His struggles continued into Tuesday’s game, resulting in a stagnant offense early on. The freshman has been recognized as the SEC Freshman of the Week multiple times this season, but will likely fall short of that award this week after committing six turnovers and scoring just two points on Tuesday.

In order to contend for a national championship, Kentucky will need their point guard to snap out of his slump.

Kentucky (19-3) will hit the road for a second consecutive Saturday, this week traveling to Starkville where they’ll face the Mississippi State Bulldogs (16-5). Tip-off is set for 1 pm EST.