As fireworks lit up the interior of Rupp Arena, their loud bangs reverberating off the blue and white piping encasing the arena, the crowd of blue and white roared and the South Carolina team watched.
Yet no pregame display – even multiple rounds of fireworks in the tightly packed arena – could prepare the fans or the Gamecocks for the explosive physicality that Kentucky would bring to the court in the ensuing 40 minutes.
“We hung in there for a while today,” Frank Martin said after Tuesday night’s 76-48 loss. “But as the game got physical, we didn’t answer the bell.”
He said Kentucky’s physicality affected his team on both the offensive and defensive end and was the difference in the game.
“It’s not just rebounding,” said Martin. “We can’t run offense because our guys won’t screen. Our guards won’t use the screens. We are not strong enough to hold post ups. Defensively we can’t – they screen you and it’s been our problem all year, defensively we can’t get through screens.’
The physicality of the three Kentucky bigs was a huge blow to the Gamecocks, and forced them into early foul trouble. Chris Silva picked up his second foul just over four minutes into the game, and by the 7:13 mark of the first half, Maik Kotsar, Alonzo Frink and Silva all had two fouls. At that moment the score was tied at 22, but Kentucky closed the half on a 17-6 run. The Gamecocks never recovered.
“It was huge,” said Silva on his foul trouble. “I wanted to play this game – I mean the whole game – but unfortunately I caught two early fouls.”
Martin could only think of one analogy to explain how his team responded to Kentucky’s physicality, likening it to fighting in a boxing match.
“If you’re a boxer, you go in the ring, you’re gonna get hit in the face. If that bothers you, you’re never going to be good at the sport," he said. "When you play in a basketball game, when you play in a physical game, you’re gonna get hit. But if you’re gonna run away from it, run around it, then it’s like everything else – the opposing team smells it.”
Kentucky ended the game on a 54-24 run from the 7:07 mark of the first half to the final horn, and in the process brought the Rupp Arena crowd to its feet time and time again. South Carolina (11-11, 6-3 SEC) could not withstand the endless string of gut punches thrown by the players in blue.
This lack of physicality is something that Martin knows isn’t going to change, but is something he hopes his team can at least improve upon going forward.
“Can you change it?” Martin asked rhetorically about his team’s physicality after game. “I don’t know. But it’s my job to keep pushing and get it better than it was today.”
The Gamecocks are at home Saturday vs. Arkansas (14-3, 5-4 SEC) at 3:30 p.m. on SEC Network. It is Carolina's annual Legends Weekend.