COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina coach Darrin Horn knew the Gamecocks had work to do.
He found out just how much after his team's 86-52 loss to No. 1 Kentucky on Saturday night.
The Gamecocks (9-13) fell to 1-7 in the Southeastern Conference, their worst start to league play since 2003. The team looked as if it was turning a corner last week with a win over Alabama and a close loss at Ole Miss. Then came this: total domination by a Kentucky team that's nearly as young as the Gamecocks.
Horn only knows one solution: Keep working.
"We have to move forward and prepare for two road games this week and stay focused on the things that we have been doing very well and given us our wins," Horn said.
There wasn't much of that against Kentucky. Freshman Damien Leonard led the Gamecocks with a career-best 19 points. But Malik Cooke and Bruce Ellington, the team's top two scorers, were 3 of 18 from the field for eight points, well off their combined total of 24 points a game coming in.
Horn said no one on the team played that well, largely because of Kentucky.
"I don't think they get near enough credit for the defense they play," Horn said.
Kentucky held South Carolina to 24 percent shooting and had 10 blocks, eight by freshman star Anthony Davis.
"It was pretty pretty hard to get in a rhythm," Cooke said. "It was hard for us to get going."
Davis had 22 points and eight rebounds to lead the Wildcats.
Kentucky coach John Calipari said for the second straight day that Horn needed more time to turn things around with the Gamecocks. South Carolina's schedule could offer some support.
The team has finished season series with Kentucky and Florida and has several more favorable league matchups the rest of the way.
"The challenge of the first eight (SEC games) we have had, it has been well documented" how difficult it was, Horn said.
Doron Lamb had 18 points, Terrence Jones 16 and the Wildcats (23-1) shot 51.6 percent as the Wildcats won their 15th straight game and moved to 9-0 in the Southeastern Conference for the first time in seven years in what Calipari called his team's best performance this season.
"It didn't matter who we played, somebody was losing by 30," Calipari said.
Davis, the 6-foot-10 freshman, was a big reason why. He finished several alley-oops in the first half as Kentucky opened 52-25 lead and was there to swat away several shots by the Gamecocks, who made only nine field goals in the opening period.
Davis said the Wildcats got a fast boost by Kentucky's fans, who made up at least half the 16,527 who turned out at the Colonial Life Arena.
"I'm not used to this," Davis said. "I thought, 'It feels like a home game in here.'"
If Kentucky keeps playing like this, expect the team's fans to turn out on the road even more than they already do.
Davis made his first nine shots, finishing 9 of 10, and added two steals.
Davis, who sat for long stretches of the second half, got back in the game with about 6 minutes to go and looked as though he might have a chance at the program's second-ever triple-double. But when he took a hard spill on a collision with Anthony Gill, Calipari took his prized freshman out for good to the applause of several thousand Wildcats fans.
Calipari was talked into putting his star back in to try and match Chris Mills' feat — he had 19 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists against Austin Peay in 1988 — and did not hesitate yanking Davis when he crash landed.
"Do you care about that?" Calipari asked Davis about a triple-double. The freshman shook his head no.
"Yes he does," Calipari cracked to the media.
It might be harder for Davis to get one down the stretch, though. Five of Kentucky's remaining seven league games are against Florida, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State — the SEC's other ranked teams.
South Carolina made one last drive to get back in it when Leonard hit a pair of 3s that cut the lead to 25-18.
The Wildcats then took off on a 17-2 run the next six minutes — Jones scored nine of the points and Davis five — to take control.
Davis didn't stop with a big lead, either. He grabbed a rebound from about 18 feet out as the shot-clock buzzer sounded and glided in for his fifth jam of the period to increase Kentucky's margin to 52-25 at the break.
Kentucky kept it going with an 11-4 run to open the second half and eventually grew the lead to 41 points as the large Wildcat contingent of fans shouted, "Go Big Blue!" in the final minutes.
The Wildcats have rolled since their only loss of the season, 73-72 at Indiana back on Dec. 10, with 14 straight wins. That's included a dominant first half run through the SEC, winning seven of their nine league games by 13 points or more.
The Gamecocks who opened league play 0-4 for the first time since 2007 seemed to find some confidence in their play last week with their first league win, 56-54 over Alabama, and a last-second, 66-62, loss at Ole Miss. They put on a strong showing, but fell again two days ago at No. 12 Florida, 74-66.
Instead, it was the worst home loss of Horn's four seasons and a vast difference from the last time No. 1 Kentucky showed up here.Comment on this story
In 2010, Gamecocks point guard Devan Downey scored 30 points in a stunning, 68-62 victory that quickly ended the Wildcats first time atop the rankings in seven seasons.
The basketball Gamecocks began a trend of toppling No. 1s that swept through the athletic department in 2010. The baseball team defeated No. 1 Arizona State on the way to a College World Series crown. And the football team beat No. 1 Alabama that fall as it won the SEC Eastern Division.
None of that mattered to these Wildcats, who won their fifth in a row over South Carolina. Horn said Kentucky had improved dramatically over the past month since the Gamecocks 79-64 loss at Rupp when South Carolina outscored the Wildcats in the second half.
"They played outstanding," Horn said. "They looked like the No. 1 team in the country."