LEXINGTON – Freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein saw his first significant playing time in three weeks and sparked the Kentucky Wildcats to a 77-55 win over the South Carolina Gamecocks Tuesday night at Rupp Arena.
The 7-foot Cauley-Stein had meniscus surgery last month and had not played much until Tuesday when he scored 13 points and grabbed six rebounds.
“Willie Cauley was unbelievable,’’ Kentucky coach John Calipari said after his team improved to 16-6 overall and 7-2 in the Southeastern Conference. “He just added energy.”
Senior guard Julius Mays agreed Cauley-Stein added a big lift to the Wildcats.
“He brings a different type of energy than any other player that we have,” said Mays of Cauley-Stein. “He changes the game both offensively and defensively.”
“It felt really good to get back out there and pick up where I left off,” Cauley-Stein said. “I just went out there and played hard.”
Mays led UK in scoring with 15 points, including 4 of 5 from 3-point shots.
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin added 13 points and rebounds for the winners.
Freshman forward/center Nerlens Noel added 10 points and a game-high 10 rebounds.Alex Poythress scored just seven points but had nine rebounds, and Kyle Wiltjer scored only five points but had six rebounds.
Michael Carrera, a 6-5 freshman forward from Venezuela, led slumping South Carolina (12-10, 2-7) with 18 points and five rebounds.
“I’ve been to Rupp Arena a handful of times as a fan, watching former players that played here at Kentucky, and I can tell you, I never thought I’d see the day where the opposing team put the crowd to sleep,” said Frank Martin, who’s in his first season as head coach of the Gamecocks.
“We did a heck of a job putting everyone to sleep in there. It is what it is.”
USC was in this game for about 10 minutes, actually leading, 18-17, midway through the first half. But then the Wildcats put the clamps down and went on to dominate the final 30 minutes.
Kentucky shot a sizzling 61.4 percent from the field on 27 of 44, to South Carolina’s 28.8 percent on 17 of 59.
The Wildcats were just 18 of 28 at the free throw line, however.
UK out-rebounded the visitors, 42-25.
The Wildcats host Auburn Saturday at 4 (SEC TV Network, WKYT-27).