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John Calipari's ejection turns Kentucky into a monster

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Calipari ejected less than three minutes into game (2:29)

Kentucky coach John Calipari is ejected from the Wildcats' game against South Carolina less than three minutes in for arguing a foul call. (2:29)

They’ll never agree.

So we’ll never know the full truth about the early exchange between Kentucky Wildcats coach John Calipari and official Doug Sirmons in the first three minutes of the Wildcats' 89-62 win at South Carolina on Saturday -- a win that kept Kentucky in first place in the SEC -- that compelled Sirmons to eject Calipari.

Cal’s 12-letter compliment probably accelerated his dismissal from the afternoon’s affairs. But Sirmons seemed a bit quick to the second whistle that sent Calipari to the locker room.

We’re not sure whether Calipari planned this. We don’t know if he concocted that sideline tirade to arouse the fighting spirit in a team that only unveiled its machismo in spurts. But he seemed angry. Ready to throw something -- someone, perhaps -- had his players freed him and let him confront Sirmons again.

None of that matters, however, but this: Calipari’s ejection led to one of Kentucky’s most impressive performances of the season. They were the Wildcats we wrote about in October but only saw for a game or two in the nonconference season and a few halves beyond that.

After Calipari’s ejection with 17:34 in to go in the first Saturday, Kentucky constructed an 84-60 run in the final 37 minutes, 34 seconds of a win over a South Carolina squad that’s earned a top-40 slot in KenPom.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.

The Wildcats, who stomped South Carolina into a slushy mud pit somewhere in Columbia, used that rare, provocative and explosive moment 2:26 into the game to ask themselves the questions every team must consider as the months and weeks that lead to March become mere days.

That’s when teams find out what they are. If they wait until the tournament for that necessary journey toward self-discovery, they often learn the truth too late.

But the Kentucky that whipped South Carolina and is tied for first place with LSU in the SEC delivered in a critical moment on the road. The Wildcats, competing without an injured Alex Poythress, walked into Colonial Life Arena and for 37-plus minutes of action without their head coach showed the world who they can be.

There’s still time for growth.

Time for teams in Kentucky’s predicament to author the conclusion that revises the doubts that preceded it and legitimizes the fascinating preseason projections.

There’s still time for Kentucky, winners of six of its past eight games, to win the SEC and mold a furious finish that leads to a successful stint in the NCAA tournament.

South Carolina held its previous opponents to a 42 percent clip inside the arc, 14th in the country. On Saturday, Kentucky made 51 percent of its 2-pointers. And Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina's No. 2 scorer, finished 3-for-10.

The Wildcats had an excuse on the road against a respectable South Carolina team with Calipari in the locker room. Instead, Tyler Ulis (27 points, 12 assists) powered this program to its potential.

Marcus Lee (11 points, 13 rebounds) woke up. Jamal Murray (26 points) feasted.

And they dunked -- on every South Carolina player, coach, student and professor on campus, it seemed.

Skal Labissiere caught an alley-oop. Lee caught a nasty alley-oop that Ulis tossed off the glass. Lee dunked again. Murray tried to take a rim back to Lexington, too.

And those slams served as more than highlights. When the Wildcats flushed dunks over that overwhelmed South Carolina squad, they presented proof that they can still dominate an opponent. That’s what the 38-1 team did in 2014-15 -- often.

Those Wildcats wanted to destroy every opponent.

Entering Saturday, Kentucky had lacked that persona. Talented? Sure. Imposing? Rarely.

But when the Wildcats enter a matchup with the right attitude -- and it seems Calipari’s ejection provided the catalyst his team needed -- they can elevate to another level. A semi-scary, you-don’t-want-to-play-us-in-March level.

And now, the final question after Saturday, one that’s worth considering in the final weeks of the college basketball season:

Does Calipari have to get ejected each night to get his team to play with the fire it showed on Saturday?

If the answer is yes, then the Wildcats are in trouble.