By Gary B. Graves
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky’s latest claim to Southeastern Conference supremacy involved overcoming an injury to its catalyst and uneven stretches that absence created.
The fifth-ranked Wildcats steadily put the pieces together against No. 24 South Carolina because Malik Monk’s also shot began falling again.
Monk scored 27 points, Bam Adebayo added 18 and Kentucky overcame a sprained ankle to starting guard De’Aaron Fox to beat South Carolina 85-69 on Saturday and take over first place in the SEC.
The showdown of the SEC’s lone unbeaten teams in league play featured a subplot of injuries to key players on both squads. Fox, Kentucky’s No. 2 scorer, turned his right ankle midway through the first half; he returned early in the second on crutches with his foot in a protective boot. His injury followed the pregame scratch of Gamecocks guard and No. 2 scorer P.J. Dozier with back spasms.
Sindarius Thornwell scored a career-high 34 points and Temarcus Blanton 12 off the bench for South Carolina (15-4, 5-1 SEC), which had won five in a row.
Losing the 6-foot-6 Dozier beforehand left the Gamecocks scrambling to replace nearly 15 points per game against the nation’s No. 3 offense. After initially struggling they recovered to keep it close behind Thornwell, who shot 9 of 23 but hit 14 of 15 free throws. Ultimately, there just wasn’t enough offense besides him or rebounding to keep up with Kentucky.
“It is kind of frustrating during the game, but it isn’t like those guys didn’t try,” Thornwell said of the lack of support. “Sometimes shots just didn’t fall our way.”
The Wildcats (17-2, 7-0 SEC) regrouped without Fox and earned the hard-fought victory thanks to Monk, who made 9 of 14 from the field and 5 of 6 free throws after shooting just 5 of 14 at Mississippi State. Adebayo added a series of dunks and Derek Willis added 12 points and 7 rebounds as Kentucky won its seventh straight.
Kentucky guard Mychal Mulder’s absence because of sickness didn’t seem like a big concern depth-wise until Fox got hurt, initially leaving Wildcats looking out of sorts and resulting in sloppy play that allowed the Gamecocks to make it a game.
“It changed a lot because he changes the game as soon as he comes in and as soon as he goes out,” Monk said of Fox. “We just have to adjust really fast and just play on without him.”
The Wildcats still looked ragged at times yet adjusted and got welcome contributions from Willis — who had a nasty dunk — Wenyen Gabriel (11 points), Dominique Hawkins (seven assists) and Isaiah Briscoe, who went scoreless but handled point guard duties well. Shooting 58 percent and outrebounding the Gamecocks 32-27 also helped.