Whitesburg KY

Cats, Carolina ready for showdown


It’s about as close to a marquee matchup as the struggling Southeastern Conference has had this season.

Kentucky visits South Carolina Wednesday to battle for first place in the SEC East. The winner stays atop the SEC East and gets some breathing room in making the NCAA tournament, while the loser could find themselves on the wrong side of the NCAA bubble looking in.

It’s the biggest game in Columbia since the Gamecocks opened the Colonial Life Arena in 2002 and will likely only be the third-ever capacity crowd at the 18,000-seat arena.

And if that wasn’t enough, the game also features the two leading candidates for SEC player of the year — Kentucky guard Jodie Meeks and South Carolina guard Devan Downey.

After weeks of saying he doesn’t pay much attention to the standings and doesn’t remind his players what’s at stake before every game, South Carolina coach Darrin Horn acknowledged Tuesday that the Kentucky game is a great day for the basketball program and one that came quicker than he planned. Then he quickly points out that the success is part of his philosophy that doing everything the right way builds a program where every game is important.

“You take care of what you can take care of, control what you can control, so that one day, eventually, over a period of time, you hope that you are Kentucky,” Horn said. “You hope you are the team that’s picked first or second every year in the league race, that the conference championship runs through, that’s hung all the banners.”

Part of the success Horn cites is Kentucky’s 17 straight NCAA tournament appearances, a streak that could be in jeopardy with a loss to to the Gamecocks. The Wildcats are 19-8 and 8- 4 in the SEC, but lack solid non-conference wins. Their best victory outside the SEC was against a West Virginia team that’s also on the bubble.

Kentucky closes with LSU, Georgia and Florida, which is also battling to win the SEC East.

“We are very fortunate to be where we are,” said Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie. “We know we have a lot left to do. We have a great deal of improvement to make if we are going to do what we want to do before it’s all over.”

South Carolina finishes with Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Georgia and their only big nonconference win is over Baylor.

But the pressure is a whole lot lighter on South Carolina, which was picked to finish fifth in the SEC East before the season started.

“The game’s not going to make or break our season,” Downey said. “If we win it, we’re closer to our goals, but if we lose it, it doesn’t shatter our goals.”

The battle between Downey and Meeks provides an interesting subplot. Meeks leads the SEC in scoring with 26.6 points a game (Downey averages 19.5 points). Downey is fifth in the league with 4.2 assists a game and tops in steals at 2.9 a game, while Meeks is outside the top 15 in both categories.

Downey got the best of the battle Jan. 31 at Kentucky, scoring 24 points to Meeks’ 20 and hitting the winning bucket on a turnaround jumper with 3 seconds to go. The win gives South Carolina a chance to sweep Kentucky for only the second time since joining the SEC 18 seasons ago.

“They are a really good team,” Gillispie said. “They have a good, sound defense and sometimes that doesn’t show up in numbers. They rebound in a timely fashion and because of their experience in play-making ability they have won a lot of close games.”

Horn said he doesn’t think the electrified crowd, high stakes or rare opportunity will rattle his Gamecocks.

“They’ve really responded to every challenge all year long,” he said.

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