ATLANTA - All this might have seemed silly a week ago, when South Carolina slogged to its third straight loss to end the regular season.
But the Gamecocks, who orchestrated a surprising 70-57 upset of No. 12 Kentucky late Friday in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, are suddenly and improbably relevant for the first time this season.
South Carolina didn't just beat Kentucky in front of 22,508 fans at the Georgia Dome. The Gamecocks led by as many as 18 points and handed the Wildcats what equaled their worst loss of the season as the blue-clad horde watched in disbelief.
Six Gamecock players scored in double figures, and guard Aaron Lucas led the team with 12 points. South Carolina also managed to win despite being outrebounded 41-28.
The Gamecocks, seeded sixth in the East Division, upset Mississippi on Thursday, and they'll try to engineer another one at 3:15 p.m. today against Alabama, the top seed in the West.
The winner will play in Sunday's championship game against Mississippi State or Louisiana State, which meet in today's other semifinal matchup at 1 p.m.
Entering the tournament, the Gamecocks were widely perceived to need to win the whole thing to earn their first NCAA Tournament bid since 1998. They've helped their at-large cause immensely with the back-to-back upsets and winning back-to-back conference games for just the second time this season.
South Aiken's Tony Kitchings had another big game after a disappointing regular season. The center scored 10 points and snared 13 rebounds on the heels of his 16-point, nine-rebound performance in Thursday's triumph.
Lost in the wonderment of the unforeseen thumping: The Gamecocks (18-13) snapped a 12-game losing streak to the Wildcats (20-9), who had won 23 of the previous 42 SEC Tournaments and eight of their past 10.
Given Friday's earlier upsets here - LSU over Georgia and Mississippi State over Florida - what happened in the nightcap probably shouldn't have been considered stunning.
But considering the Gamecocks' state entering the tournament, their fourth trip to the semifinals in six years was certainly extraordinary - no matter how badly Kentucky played at times.
The Wildcats shot 31 percent from the field and were 1-of-19 from 3-point range. Guard Keith Bogans led Kentucky with 13 points, and senior forward Tayshaun Prince added 12.
Kentucky played the entire game without sophomore guard Gerald Fitch, who has played in 25 games this season and started 23. Fitch, averaging 10 points and four rebounds per game, sat out three games late in the season because of an undisclosed violation but played 23 minutes in last week's win over Florida.
Kentucky fans chanted "We want Fitch" on several occasions, but their pleas went unanswered.
Everything appeared to be unfolding to Wildcat form early, when Kentucky jumped to an early 7-0 lead. But the Gamecocks scrapped back and took their first lead at 13-12, and they later extended it to 24-17 when Kitchings hit two free throws with 5:16 left.
Kentucky trimmed the deficit to four points when Bogans made one free throw, missed the second and followed with a jumper to make it 26-22.
But South Carolina used a 9-3 spurt, which began with a Jamel Bradley 3-pointer from the top of the key and an authoritative dunk by Lucas off a baseline drive, to extend its lead to 35-25 before Kentucky cut it to 35-27 at halftime.
Prince drew two quick fouls and played just five first-half minutes for the Wildcats, who shot 28 percent from the field before intermission.
South Carolina pushed the lead to 43-33 when Lucas buried a fall-away 3-pointer from the left wing with 16 minutes left, and a 10-0 run gave the Gamecocks their largest lead of the game, 53-37, with 8:49 remaining.
Sophomore guard Michael Boynton played a key role in the surge. The reserve hit 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions, easily the two biggest shots of his career, and South Carolina extended its cushion to 59-41 on two Carlos Powell free throws with 5:03 left.
Boynton finished with 10 points. The Wildcats didn't get any closer than 11 points.
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.
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