Senior forward Derek Willis throws down what his teammates say was his best dunk in the win over South Carolina (photo courtesy Chet White/UK Athletics)

Senior forward Derek Willis throws down what his teammates say was his best dunk in the win over South Carolina (photo courtesy Chet White/UK Athletics)

Their floor leader was hobbled, then invisible. Their veteran was suffering through a nightmare of a game. The guys in the different-colored jerseys represented the best defensive team in the Southeastern Conference. Rupp Arena was ripe for an upset.

Kentucky 85, South Carolina 69.

They are the top two teams in the conference and even though 16 points separated them on Saturday evening, you have to wonder what might have happened if SC point guard P.J. Dozier hadn’t hurt his back in practice earlier this week. He told his coach, Frank Martin, he was good to go but on the plane ride from Columbia to Lexington, his back went into full spasm and he spent the entire game on the Gamecock bench.

Four other SC players were feeling the effects of the flu, as was Kentucky senior guard Mychal Mulder. He would have seen some quality minutes in this one because De’Aaron Fox, with 12:43 to play in the first half, frantically waved to the UK bench, pointed to himself and then to his ankle. It was hurting.

Fox left for the locker room, tried to come back but couldn’t go. His absence then left the Wildcats hurting. That’s because Isaiah Briscoe, trying to run the point guard position, turned in arguably his worst, most frustrating game in a UK uniform, going scoreless (0-for-2 from the field) with seven turnovers (six in the first half alone).

At one point, assistant coach Kenny Payne, on the UK bench, leaned over and suggested to John Calipari that the UK head coach have senior Dominique Hawkins take over as the on-court quarterback. Bingo.

“I thought Dominique was great,” Calipari said, also noting that he likely would hear it on the home front from the Mrs. for not playing son Brad when the call went out for a new point guard. Instead, he stayed with Hawkins. “Dom was terrific,” which he was.

Hawkins rolled up seven assists and just two turnovers (one in the meaningless final seconds) in 28 minutes, part of the Wildcat bench brigade that came through on a day some of the starters were struggling.

“We take a lot of pride because we know our bench is very useful,” Hawkins said. “Coach relies on us to come in to make plays.”

He did, and so did Derek Willis. In fact, Willis made the play of the game, courtesy of Hawkins who hit him with a perfect give/go pass that led to a screaming, tomahawk dunk, which Hawkins said was the best he’s seen from his fellow senior in the four years they’ve spent together in Lexington.

“It’s been a while since I dunked like that,” Willis said. “It felt really good. The crowd got rolling and our team got rolling with it as well.”

The Wildcats rolled, thanks to the combined efforts of what Calipari calls the “three” position. Willis shares minutes with freshman Wenyen Gabriel and together, they proved nearly unstoppable for the Gamecocks.

“They’re just giving us so much now at that position,” Calipari said, “23 points, 12 rebounds, making threes, making open shots, rebounding balls.”

On this day, it was Gabriel in the starting lineup, with Willis coming off the bench again, just as he did through the middle of last season. He sounds as though he prefers it that way.

“It makes my job easier, actually, “ Willis said. “There’s less pressure on me. I get to come into the game and bring energy. It’s really easier on me.”

His 12 points and seven rebounds made it easier for the Cats to pull away.

“He always kills us,” Martin said. “Willis always gets us. Give that kid credit – upper classman, making plays for his team.”

Making plays on a night when two of Kentucky’s top two playmakers were either hurting, or struggling. The Wildcats found another way to get through it, which is why they’re still undefeated through seven league games, heading for Knoxville on Tuesday night.

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