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Feb. 25, 2009

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) -Devan Downey skipped down the court. His 3-pointer had just put South Carolina up 28 points on Kentucky midway through the second half, and his team was about to vault alone into first in the SEC East for the first time in February in 12 years. Downey and his teammates soaked up some of the loudest cheers ever heard at their 6-year-old arena. “I’m just speechless,” Downey said when asked to recall the moment. “This feels so special.”

The Gamecocks’ special season continued on Wednesday night with a 77-59 win over Kentucky. South Carolina left little doubt it’s an NCAA tournament team, winning the biggest game in Columbia since the program’s only SEC East title in 1997.

South Carolina (20-6, 9-4 Southeastern Conference) set a school record with 16 blocked shots, forced 20 turnovers, never trailed and led by at least 18 points for the entire second half in just its ninth win over Kentucky (19-9, 8-5) in 50 games between the teams.

Meanwhile, the Wildcats find their streak of 17 straight NCAA tournaments in jeopardy.

“They got their tails kicked tonight, guys. Everybody gets their tails kicked every once in a while. We’ll be better on Saturday. The world is not ending,” Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said. “We got whipped. Give Carolina credit for how well they played … they made us play poorly.”

Downey may be South Carolina’s SEC player of the year candidate, and he showed his versatility with five steals and five assists. But he received plenty of help, especially from Muldrow, who South Carolina coach Darrin Horn challenged before the game.

“He got dunked on two or three times at Kentucky,” Horn said. “I told him I thought he was better than that in so many words not for print.”

Muldrow responded with eight points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks. Zam Fredrick added 15 for the Gamecocks.

South Carolina swarmed Kentucky inside, and Patrick Patterson called it the most frustrating game he has ever had. He scored 28 points and had 12 rebounds, but had his shot blocked eight times and shot 10 of 24, almost all on shots within five feet of the basket.

Gillispie said Patterson got no help from the rest of the team.

“One of the best performances I’ve ever seen as far as courage, toughness, determination, willingness to try to help your team win,” the coach said of his sophomore forward.

Kentucky’s Jodie Meeks, battling with Downey for SEC player of the year honors, scored 18 points, playing sparingly once the game got out of hand.

The Gamecocks pushed Kentucky around all night long.

Leading by 23 with less than 10 minutes to go, the 5-foot-9 Downey swooped between three defenders and hit a high-arching layup to put South Carolina ahead 68-43.

On the next possession, Muldrow and Mike Holmes had back-to-back blocks as Kentucky tried to push the ball inside, and then Downey buried a 3 to give the Gamecocks their biggest lead at 71-43 with 9 minutes to go.

In the next three minutes, South Carolina blocked three more shots. Holmes also blocked a Patterson hook shot on its way down. He got called for an obvious goaltending, but the crowd roared anyway.

“I really think our bigs were the difference in the game. You know Meeks and Patterson are going to be good and Fredrick and Downey are going to do what they do. That’s what all-caliber SEC players do,” Horn said. “But I thought our bigs and our bench were the difference. They were terrific.”

The Wildcats have little time to regroup. They need at least a couple more wins to feel comfortable on Selection Sunday, and finish with SEC leader LSU, Florida — a team also battling for an NCAA bid — and Georgia.

The road is much easier for South Carolina, which heads to Vanderbilt on Saturday, then finishes with Tennessee and Georgia.

Gamecocks fans haven’t been this excited since 1997, when they won the SEC with a 15-1 league record. That team was the only other one to sweep Kentucky.

Wednesday’s game was the biggest in Columbia since that team knocked off the then-No. 3 Wildcats in overtime. The courtside celebrities that night were a just-past-their-peak-of-fame Hootie and the Blowfish, who scrambled over tables to rush the court along with hundreds of other fans at the old Carolina Coliseum.

The fans stayed in the stands on Wednesday, and Horn planned to temper the enthusiasm by telling his team this game means little unless the Gamecocks can keep winning.

“I don’t think we need to get too overly excited about it,” Horn said. “Again, we’ve got to lay it one brick at a time.”