Mississippi State's 84-82 win over Kentucky (21-11) was like a 100-gallon drum of gasoline thrown onto an already raging blaze in light of the increasing calls for Coach Tubby Smith to resign by prominent columnists in the state. There are enough bizarre twists and turns of Kentucky's fate in the final minutes to fill a week of soap opera plots, but one play in particular will have the Wildcat faithful pulling their hair out for months.
With five seconds left in the game and Kentucky leading by three points, Jodie Meeks had a chance to seal a miraculous come from behind win with a second free throw. Since he'd hit all five of his foul shots there was no reason to believe he wouldn't bury this one and if he had gotten the chance to shoot, Kentucky would probably be playing in the semifinals on Friday.
Meeks had the ball in his hands when Tubby signaled for all his players to back off the foul lines and get back across half court. Not a bad idea at all. Only problem is, Meeks had the ball in his hands and he backed off the foul line.
That's when Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury went ballistic.
"He backed off the line with the ball in his hands and that's a clear violation," said Stansbury who signaled for a 30-second timeout as he stormed on the court pointing to lead official Mike Stuart.
Stuart raced down the court looking like he was about to light up Stansbury, but Stansbury held his ground, pointed out the violation and convinced Stuart he better huddle up with fellow officials J.B. Caldwell and Mike Nance to get a handle on what just happened.
"They weren't going to make the call but they were either going to make it or I was gone," Stansbury continued. "Give the officials credit, though. They got together and they made the right call. Either they had to make it or run me. They did the right thing."
The right call was a lane violation which gave Mississippi State possession and Gordon the chance to redeem himself.
The final result will black out a remarkable second half comeback that saw Kentucky rally from 14-down with 11:34 remaining to put itself in a position to win the game. Yet, even in this display of composure and grit, the comeback couldn't have happened without a lot of help from Mississippi State. The Bulldogs had a 14-point lead because they wouldn't let Kentucky dictate the tempo of the game but once Kentucky altered its press and stopped pressuring the in-bounds pass, choosing instead to double up on the first receiver, the entire demeanor of the game changed.
Kentucky pulled back even at 68-68 with 3:50 remaining on a pair of free throws by Meeks and from that point on the game was a matter of mistakes and who would capitalize.
That it would come to this is just another chapter in yet another topsy-turvy Kentucky season, filled with contrasts and inconsistencies. Just in this tournament alone we had a confident, poised Kentucky team that destroyed Alabama in the first round. We also had a first half Kentucky team that had its complete game on display.
And then there was the Kentucky team that went into a coma on defense in the first 10 minutes of the second half when Jamont Gordon made the painted area his personal sand box. There are people in prison for a lot of years for doing less than what Gordon did to the Kentucky guards in that stretch when he drove the lane and nobody could stop him.
Of course, this was the same Gordon that committed three critical turnovers in the final four minutes of regulation that helped Kentucky right its sinking ship. His miscues were converted into seven critical Kentucky points and then there was that blown layup with 13 seconds left that would have tied the game at 75-75.
All that was forgotten the moment his 25-footer struck nylon at the moment the clock struck zero to tie the game at 76-76.
Once in overtime, Mississippi State made it another adventure but the Bulldogs played it clean compared to those Keystone Cops in Kentucky uniforms. Kentucky had plenty of opportunities to take charge of the game, but the fact Kentucky couldn't is a sign of the times in Lexington.
Barry Stewart converted a layup with 26 seconds left to give Mississippi State the lead for good at 83-82 and he would hit one of two free throws with 3.7 seconds remaining to make it a precarious two-point cushion. Kentucky inbounded to midcourt and called time to set up a last shot, but Perry's faulty inbounds pass was touched by Stewart and Delk came up with the deflection in the corner to put Kentucky on ice.
Mississippi State moves into the Saturday semifinals, probably needing one more win to make the NCAA Tournament. Kentucky, on the other hand, will be in the tournament but it looks more and more like the Wildcats will be in the worst possible seeding position. Figure Kentucky's going to be in that dreaded 8-9 game which pits two teams of near-equal strength in the first round. A win and the Wildcats would have been upwardly mobile in the NCAA bracketing.
The loss wasted probably the best single game in the career of 6-11 Randolph Morris, whose 29-point, 11-rebound game was the kind of stuff that Kentucky fans thought they would get when he signed three years ago. Joe Crawford added 14 points and Meeks had 14 for Kentucky.