LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky was so effective Tuesday night against South Carolina that Wildcats coach John Calipari almost seemed to regret pointing out some of his team's mistakes.
That's because the Wildcats' successes outweighed their failures in a 77-55 blowout that brought the Wildcats within a game of first-place Florida in the Southeastern Conference. Julius Mays' 15 points led five Kentucky players in double figures as the defending national champions shot 61 percent for their fourth straight victory and perhaps most complete in conference play.
The Wildcats shot 27 of 44 from the field and outrebounded the Gamecocks 42-25. Kentucky's shooting percentage was its third-highest effort this season.
Calipari found fault with Kentucky's 17 turnovers, which didn't matter because the Wildcats also held the Gamecocks to 17-of-59 shooting (28.8 percent).
"We shoot 60 percent, hold them to 28 percent and I'm not totally happy. I must be a jerk," the coach said. "I've been called worse, by the way. I don't know if you know that."
The Wildcats (16-6, 7-2), meanwhile can be called conference contenders again on a night that began with them two games behind Florida before the No. 2 Gators suffered their first league loss, 80-69 at Arkansas, earlier in the evening.
Kentucky ended the night within striking distance of Florida, just what the Wildcats were looking for with their first meeting against the Gators next Tuesday in Gainesville, Fla.
Mays' four 3-pointers led the way Tuesday as he paced Kentucky's scorers after tying with Nerlens Noel for the team lead in Saturday's overtime win at Texas A&M with a season-high 19.
"I just finally found my groove, being more comfortable," he said. "I'm finding a way to get my shots up."
But the fifth-year senior guard had plenty of contributors.
Willie Cauley-Stein and Archie Goodwin each added 13 points, Ryan Harrow had 12 and Nerlens Noel 10 along with 10 rebounds and five blocks.
"We're getting better," Harrow said, "but we still have a lot of work to do and we've just got to keep preparing and working hard in practice."
Freshman forward Michael Carrera scored a game-high 18 points with six rebounds for South Carolina (12-10, 2-7), which lost its third in a row and fifth in the past six games.
"We just got out of their way and let them practice their dunking," Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said of Kentucky's offense.
The Gamecocks have found the going rough in the first half of their SEC schedule, with their only league victories coming against LSU and Arkansas. They entered Tuesday having lost four of their past five games, including Saturday's defeat to Georgia.
Shooting and rebounding have been the obvious culprits for South Carolina in those recent losses. The Gamecocks haven't shot above 37 percent and have been outrebounded by a 152-127 margin in the four defeats.
Those numbers toughened South Carolina's mission at Rupp Arena, where it hasn't won since 2009. Especially since Kentucky entered the game leading the SEC in defensive rebounds (27.6), second in field goal defense (39 percent) and third in rebounding margin (plus-3.5) in league play.
Noel has been a big part of that, leading the nation in blocks (4.6 per game) and the SEC with 9.8 rebounds in league play. Against South Carolina, the SEC's top rookie for three weeks running added his second consecutive double-double that contributed to the Gamecocks' misery.
"It was just like playing Kentucky last year," said Gamecocks guard Damien Leonard, referring to the title team featuring standout shot-blocker Anthony Davis. "You had to look for the big guy coming out of nowhere to block your shot and you had to be careful with that."
Calipari has wished teammates would be as fierce as Noel. Despite their recent surge, the coach has lamented his team's lack of toughness, especially with the ball after Kentucky committed a season-worst 19 turnovers in the overtime win at Texas A&M.
That Wildcats weakness left them trailing 18-17 after 9:38 when they had a chance to exploit the Gamecocks' early inaccuracy. South Carolina missed its first five shots before Michael Carrera's putback 4:06 in, cutting Kentucky's lead to 11-4.
A 14-7 run over the next 6:32 gave the Gamecocks their only lead, a turnaround helped by seven Wildcats' turnovers through 10 minutes. Kentucky quickly regrouped with 11 straight points and closed the half with a 28-6 run.
Harrow and Goodwin, two players Calipari said needed to step up, each scored 10 points as the Wildcats were a white-hot 15-of-22 shooting (68 percent) in the first half.
Noel, meanwhile, had four blocks to extend shooting woes for South Carolina, which shot just 9 of 32 (28 percent) by intermission.
The Gamecocks never got closer than 15 in the second half.