Although it hasn’t always led to losses, squandering late leads has been a season-long problem for Kentucky.
John Calipari hopes his team can fix that issue before the SEC and NCAA tournaments.
After escaping with another close win, the 22nd-ranked Wildcats seek improved poise down the stretch Saturday against a South Carolina team that nearly rallied to beat Kentucky four weeks ago.
The Wildcats (18-7, 6-5) are tied for third in the SEC Eastern Division. They need to finish in the top two to receive a first-round bye in the conference tournament, but Calipari said he hasn’t even talked to his players about the seedings.
“We are worried about the last 5 minutes of the game right now,” he said. “If we can get that right, the other stuff will take care of itself.”
Kentucky led 83-70 with 3:49 to play against Mississippi State on Tuesday, but committed two turnovers and missed two free throws as the Bulldogs went on a 9-0 run to pull within four points with 49 seconds left. The Wildcats hung on for an 85-79 win, avoiding a fourth loss in five games.
“We need to play to win and not play to the score,” said Brandon Knight, who had 24 points to extend his school freshman record with his 11th 20-point game. “Things like knowing time and clock and knowing when we’re up double digits. We don’t need to score a lot under 4 minutes if we have a double-digit lead.”
Knight is one of three freshmen starters for Calipari, who believes some of the late-game troubles stem from youth.
“I have a young, inexperienced team,” Calipari said. “We are working on it, which is what we have to do.
“We just have to try to win a game, try to get better, try to finish a game off and just walk in and say, ‘OK, let’s try to figure this out.’”
Kentucky, which has won 31 straight home games, struggled to finish at South Carolina on Jan. 22.
The Wildcats’ 16-point lead slipped to five with 1:16 left, but they scored six of the game’s final eight points to win 67-58. Knight had 23 points while fellow freshman Terrence Jones scored 14 to lead Kentucky to its second straight win over the Gamecocks after losing the previous three meetings.
South Carolina (13-11, 4-7) arrives at Rupp Arena after nearly completing a late comeback in Wednesday’s 73-67 loss at Tennessee.
The Gamecocks went on an 8-0 run to pull within five points with a minute remaining, but could get no closer and ended up losing their fourth straight to remain in last place in the SEC East.
“We got to keep building on what we saw on Wednesday night,” coach Darrin Horn said. “Obviously there are some things we got to continue to get better at, and that’s been our focus.”
Junior forward Malik Cooke had a career-best 22 points, but senior Sam Muldrow had another tough night, missing 11 of 14 shots and finishing with eight points.
Muldrow, who had a team-best 23 points against Kentucky last month, is averaging 9.6 and shooting 35.8 percent shooting in his last five games. He’d averaged 19.0 points and shot 57.1 percent in his previous three contests.
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