COLUMBIA - This time, Cliff Hawkins' prayer was answered, as his desperate shot over Jamel Bradley with 3.4 seconds remaining lifted Kentucky to a 51-50 victory over South Carolina on Saturday.
Hawkins scored Kentucky's final six points of the day, including the off-balance game-winner from 12 feet that gave the Wildcats their first lead of the second half. His shot saved eighth-ranked Kentucky (10-4, 1-2 SEC) from opening 0-3 in conference play for the first time in 25 years.
It was a heart-breaking conclusion for the Gamecocks (10-5, 0-2), who got the better of the Wildcats defensively but spoiled the effort with the worst shooting performance (18-of-56, 32.1 percent) of the season. Despite forcing Kentucky into 20 turnovers, South Carolina fell to 0-5 against ranked opponents.
"There shouldn't be that much difference in one point, no matter which side it falls on, but there is," said South Carolina coach Dave Odom. "I'm not into moral victories, but I'm not a coach to dismiss a great effort."
All the effort that had the Gamecocks ahead by as many as eight points in the second half was ruined by their inability to make the key shots when they had to. South Carolina made only four of 14 shots in the final 13 minutes after leading 38-30, and Marius Petravicius missed the front end of a one-and-one with 28 seconds left and the Gamecocks leading 50-49.
Chuck Eidson and Aaron Lucas missed 17 of 20 combined shots, including Lucas' running 3-pointer at the buzzer.
"We had the chance to make open shots and free throws, and didn't make them," said Odom, whose only disappointment in his team's effort was disregarding instructions to call timeout to set up a final play after Hawkins' shot.
It was a redeeming performance for Hawkins, whose failures in the closing seconds of the previous two SEC games caused Kentucky coach Tubby Smith to declare that the point guard needed to distribute the ball more and shoot less.
But with the Rolando Howell and the Gamecocks holding star forward Tayshaun Prince to a season-low eight points, Hawkins was forced to take matters into his own hands again. This time he came through with Kentucky's final six points in the last three minutes, even scoring the winning basket after Bradley knocked the ball out of his hands.
Hawkins' following shot tied the game at 47-47 with 2:57 remaining, but the Gamecocks went back ahead 50-47 on three free throws by Petravicius.
With 37 seconds left, Hawkins made a running one-hander in the lane to draw the Wildcats back to within one.
Petravicius again was fouled with 28 seconds left, but his one-and-one attempt bounced off the rim to give Kentucky the opportunity to win.
"I'm just happy we got a win," Hawkins said. "We don't have that losing streak any more and won an SEC game."
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219.