COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP)—Kentucky freshman Terrence Jones didn’t think getting cussed out by his coach was that big a deal. Still, he and the 12th-ranked Wildcats played as though John Calipari’s harsh words meant plenty.
Brandon Knight had 23 points and Jones scored 14 as Kentucky held off a late charge by South Carolina for a 67-58 victory Saturday night. The Wildcats (15-4, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) had spent the past few days dealing with a video clip of Calipari swearing at Jones, his 6-foot-8 freshman, about selfishness during a timeout in Tuesday night’s loss to Alabama.
Calipari apologized for the language, but not the message.
“Our coach isn’t the first in college basketball who ever cussed. That didn’t even bother me,” Jones said. “Coach Cal talks to us just to get our attention and make sure we’re doing what he wants us to do.”
The Wildcats played as if they understood, especially Jones.
He had three power jams as Kentucky broke on top 20-12 in the first 9 minutes. Jones was active throughout with seven rebounds, two blocks and three steals in Kentucky’s bounce-back win.
Calipari probably wanted to swear a few times down the stretch when Kentucky’s 16-point lead slipped to 61-56 with 1:16 left. But Doron Lamb, a freshman like Knight and Jones, hit four consecutive foul shots and the Wildcats escaped with their first victory at the Colonial Life Arena in three years.
Calipari was his loud, intense self throughout. He said he knew despite his team’s big lead that South Carolina would make a run and tighten things up.
“They’re not veteran enough,” Calipari said of his club. “But this is a good win.”
The coach also couldn’t resist playfully jabbing at Jones when it was over.
“I told him we’d have a highlight reel of him getting dunked on,” Calipari said. “He comes back and says, ‘You going to show my dunks, too?”’
Darius Miller added 18 points for Kentucky.
Sam Muldrow tied his career high with 23 points and grabbed 13 rebounds to lead the Gamecocks (12-6, 3-2).
Kentucky hadn’t fared well at South Carolina the past few seasons and its 68-62 loss here a year ago was one of last season’s most talked-about stunners.
Those Wildcats had just reached No. 1 for the first time in seven years and, a few hours before tip-off, took a congratulatory call from President Barack Obama for their fundraising efforts for Haitian earthquake victims.
It all seemed too much for that group, who featured the NBA’s top draft pick, John Wall, and fellow first-rounder DeMarcus Cousins.
The newest Wildcats also entered this game with days of distractions after Calipari was caught on camera swearing at Jones during a timeout in the loss to Alabama.
But this time, Kentucky and especially Jones, thrived when they hit the court.
Jones, making his first start in four games, threw down an electrifying assortment of jams and dunks in the first half as Kentucky pulled away.
He had two straight power jams to give the Wildcats a 10-5 lead. Jones had another one-handed flush to make it 20-12 with 11:06 before halftime. He appeared to roll his ankle after his final dunk that put Kentucky up 30-20 and was briefly looked at on the bench. Jones returned to action moments later.
“We played with a lot more intensity, a lot more drive,” said Knight, who had his best SEC scoring game.
South Carolina struggled to keep up. Its own stellar freshman, point guard Bruce Ellington, played just 8 minutes in the first half with foul trouble. The Gamecocks’ leading scorer was held to eight points, about seven fewer than his average.
The best moments for South Carolina fans in the sold-out arena were football-related.
The crowd burst into chants of “We want Clowney” when the nation’s No. 1 college prospect, South Pointe defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, found his seat next to coach Steve Spurrier.
Then, Spurrier took the microphone at halftime to talk up his team’s future and show off trophies won for winning the SEC Eastern Division and defeating rival Clemson last fall.
Spurrier and his football recruits had little else to cheer about after that as Kentucky took control.
Knight seemed to ice things with eight consecutive points that pushed the Wildcats’ lead to 61-45 before South Carolina’s final run.
Muldrow had his fifth double-double of the season, but he was among the few Gamecocks finding the basket. While the South Carolina senior went 7 of 12 from the floor, his teammates were 12 for 45.
South Carolina coach Darrin Horn said it’s difficult to rally when you fall as far behind as the Gamecocks did.
“Our kids fought and gave us a chance to win at the end, but the game started with a bad tone and a bad mood so it was tough to overcome that,” Horn said.