COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP)—It may have taken four years, but Kentucky coach Tubby Smith thinks Cliff Hawkins has finally gotten comfortable running the Wildcats.
The senior point guard scored a career-high 21 points and tied his personal best with 11 assists to lead No. 9 Kentucky (22-4, 12-3 Southeastern Conference) to an 84-65 victory over South Carolina on Wednesday night.
Hawkins also had a career-best five 3-pointers in seven attempts.
“I told them from now on they call me D.O.C.,” Hawkins said. “You know what that means? ‘Dead on the Catch.”’
While the deadeye shooting was nice, Smith said he enjoyed Hawkins’ passing even more.
“When you combine that with hitting the outside shot, you have a guy you can hardly guard,” Smith said.
But it wasn’t just Hawkins who the Gamecocks (21-8, 8-7) struggled with. The Wildcats shot 31-of-60 (51.7 percent) for the game and were 13-of-22 (59.1 percent) on 3-pointers.
If not for the 19 turnovers and the 13-of-22 shooting from the free throw line, Smith said he would have called it Kentucky’s best game of the year.
“I think what we all witnessed tonight was a great team playing at a high level,” South Carolina coach Dave Odom said.
The Gamecocks had a chance to win at the buzzer at Rupp Arena earlier this year, but the Wildcats put Wednesday night’s game away much quicker.
Kentucky quieted a crowd pumped for senior night with a 17-2 run over a 7-minute span to take a 30-14 lead with 3:45 left in the first half. South Carolina missed seven of eight shots during the run and committed five turnovers.
Several of the Wildcats’ baskets came on the fast break. South Carolina’s been known for its pressing defense for most of the season, but Kentucky’s running game put the Gamecocks on their heels and opened up the perimeter.
“When a team gets on a roll like we do, knocking down outside shots and moving the ball, it gets tough,” Smith said.
The Wildcats were 9-of-15 from 3-point range at one point, including consecutive 3s from Kelenna Azubuike and Antwain Barbour right after South Carolina got its only points during the first-half run.
It didn’t get any better after halftime, as Kentucky hit 10 of its first 14 shots in a 24-9 run to open the second half that gave the Wildcats a 62-33 lead with just over 12 minutes to go.
“If you don’t play at a high level in this league, things like that can happen,” Odom said.
The Gamecocks outscored Kentucky 14-1 over the next 5 minutes, but couldn’t get any closer than 72-57.
Gerald Fitch scored 16 points, including going 4-for-4 on 3s, and had seven rebounds for Kentucky, while Erik Daniels added 13 points on 6-of-8 shooting.
Carlos Powell led South Carolina with 15 points and nine rebounds and Brandon Wallace added 13 points.
South Carolina missed center Rolando Howell, who is out with a broken wrist. The Gamecocks never got into an offensive rhythm, settling for contested 3-pointers instead of pounding the ball inside.
Odom didn’t want to talk about his team missing the senior, answering a question about Howell by saying “our team didn’t play well.”
The 19-point loss was the biggest this season for the Gamecocks, who played in front of 18,000 people—the largest crowd to ever see a basketball game in the state of South Carolina.
Kentucky, which clinched the SEC East title last weekend, has won 16 of the last 17 meetings between the teams. Florida’s win over Georgia on Wednesday, assured the Gamecocks can finish no better than third in the East and muddles their NCAA tournament hopes after starting the season 18-2.