LEXINGTON, Ky. - On a day commemorating one of Kentucky's greatest teams, it took a last-second shot to avoid a woeful first.
Never had the Wildcats lost three consecutive home games in the Southeastern Conference. Thanks to Rajon Rondo's second buzzer-beater in three weeks, they still haven't.
The sophomore guard, who came into the game a 29 percent shooter from beyond the arc, hit one when it mattered, lifting Kentucky to an 80-78 victory Saturday over South Carolina.
"I want the ball in my hands at the end of the game," Rondo said. "I want to make something happen."
With the victory, Kentucky (12-6, 2-2 SEC) avoided a brush with unwanted history in the presence of some of "Rupp's Runts," the national runners-up in 1965-66. Not since the 1966-67 season, the year after the Runts, had Kentucky lost three straight home games.
Four of five starters from that team were present for halftime honors, except Pat Riley, now the Miami Heat coach, who had planned to attend but canceled.
Riley was there in spirit, though - even for South Carolina coach Dave Odom as he pondered Rondo's shot.
"It was no secret who was going to get the ball, unless Pat Riley showed up," Odom said.
Antoine Tisby's two free throws gave South Carolina (10-8, 1-4) a 78-77 lead with 10 seconds left. Tisby went to the line amid vocal protests from Kentucky coach Tubby Smith and the Rupp Arena crowd, who argued that Tisby traveled.
Before the free throws, Kentucky had pulled ahead on a 3-pointer that Odom joked Patrick Sparks hit from the Rupp museum. Sparks' heel was on the Kentucky "K" at half court when he launched it, a 29-footer officially.
"Maybe it was a little deep, but I knocked it down," Sparks said.
It was one of four 3-pointers for the senior guard, who had 14 points - his highest total since scoring 25 on Nov. 22 against West Virginia. Tarence Kinsey's 21 points led the Gamecocks.
South Carolina went on a 15-0 run early in the second half to lead 58-46, but the Wildcats rediscovered their touch and scored 20 of the next 24 points.
"Basketball is a game of runs," Kinsey said. "Everybody can easily run off 10 or 12 points real quick. It is just how we respond when they start going on a run."
The Kentucky run came largely without Morris, who picked up his fourth foul with 11:30 left and was held out of most of the rest of the game.
For the first time in several games, Kentucky shot well out of the gate, but so did South Carolina. The teams combined for eight 3-pointers in the first eight minutes and 12 in the half, including three each by Kentucky's Sparks and Carolina's Dwayne Day, who had 18 points and tied a career-high with four total 3-pointers.
Kentucky made 56 percent of its shots from the field in the game, and South Carolina hit 52 percent. The Gamecocks won the rebounding battle, 31-25.
"We pulled one out today," Smith said. "It was a really tough game. We dug ourselves a hole, but I have to give our kids a lot of credit when we were down 10 or 12 points."
It was a seesaw battle most of the first half, and the longest run was South Carolina's six consecutive points in the final two minutes. Sparks immediately answered that with a 3-pointer to give Kentucky a 40-38 lead at halftime.
Although the Wildcats shot well, the mental lapses that plagued them in recent losses to Kansas, Vanderbilt and Alabama dogged them again on occasion. In consecutive possessions in the first half, the team was called for over and back, then Rondo threw the ball out of bounds when Sparks was looking the other way.
Ahead of Tuesday's victory at Georgia, Smith enlisted an assistant professor in sports leadership to try to help pull the team out of its slump.
But guard Ravi Moss said there is no cure like victory - even a close one.
"A win like this helps a lot, especially since we came from behind," Moss said. "It really helps us maintain our confidence."
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