It was something I had never seen before. And it was something the Kentucky players hadn't either.
UK head coach John Calipari was ejected just over two minutes into his team's 89-62 win over South Carolina Saturday afternoon at Colonial Life Arena. Speaking to the refs after a physical play, Calipari managed to pick up two technical fouls in a span of about 34 seconds of real time. While trying to send a message to the refs, Calipari also evidently sent one to his players.
In the post-game press conference, numerous Kentucky players mentioned how they had never seen their coach behave that way, but they also described the inspiration it gave them the rest of the way.
Leading 5-3 with 17:34 to play in the first half, UK was suddenly without their head coach. It was the second time Calipari had been tossed in Columbia's Colonial Life Arena in the last three years.
Michael Carrera went to the free throw line after the technical fouls, missing three of his four attempts from the line. He followed with a three-point basket a few possessions later to give the Gamecocks their first lead of the game.
UK, at first, appeared sloppy after their fiery coach left the floor but they eventually buckled down. The Wildcats broke off a 7-0 run and a 6-0 run in a small stretch of game time in the first half to take a commanding lead. Tyler Ulis knocked down a three-pointer late and the shot clock, bringing the Big Blue faithful in Columbia to their feet.
A Jamal Murray dunk late in the half increased UK's lead to nine, the largest at that point in the game, forcing Frank Martin to call a timeout. A Marcus Lee dunk after the break increased Kentucky's lead to 10. Another Wildcat basket made their lead 12. USC was turning the ball over and not making their free throws, missing six of their first nine at the charity stripe.
After a couple of muddy possessions minus Calipari, Kentucky was rolling. They entered the half with a 41-27 lead, marking USC's largest halftime deficit of the season. Ulis, Murray and freshman Isaiah Briscoe scored 31 of UK's 41 first half points.
Not much changed in the second half - the only difference was Kentucky seemed to dunk more often. Shortly after halftime, Ulis tossed a pass off the glass in transition that was caught and slammed by Lee for an incredible alley-oop. Skal Labissiere caught an alley-oop as well and Lee scored from the sky again. And the alley off the glass wasn't even the best dunk of the afternoon. Murray, a future lottery pick, had a one-hand slam in the second half that will cause nightmares.
Entering Saturday's game, South Carolina was holding opponents to 42 percent shooting from inside the arc, a mark good enough for 14th in the country. Kentucky made 51 percent of their two-pointers in the win.
USC falls to second place in the SEC standings with the loss as LSU and Kentucky are now tied at the top. The Tigers took care of Texas A&M in Baton Rouge at the same time the Wildcats were routing the Gamecocks. South Carolina could be tied for second place if Florida beats Alabama Saturday night in Gainesville.
Saturday was a highly anticipated game, with students arriving as early as 8 a.m. to get seats for the game. Colonial Life Arena has only sold out 10 times, and Saturday was one of those 10. The Gamecocks laid an egg in one of the biggest games in school history.
Is saying USC laid an egg too harsh? Maybe, but it certainly feels like they did. Kentucky, winners of six of their last eight games, entered Saturday having beaten Florida and Georgia by a combined 53 points in their last two outings. And they looked sharp again Saturday. Ulis commented after the game that this was probably their best performance of the season.
UK went on an 84-60 run following Calipari's ejection. Their inspiration and talent was something these Gamecocks just couldn't handle.