Big second half lifts Cats over Bulldogs

Kentucky was not sharp in its return to the court after an 11-day holiday layoff, but the Wildcats found their stride in the second half of an 85-63 win over Mississippi State on Wednesday night at Rupp Arena.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky was not sharp in its return to the court after an 11-day holiday layoff, but the Wildcats found their stride in the second half of an 85-63 win over Mississippi State on Wednesday night at Rupp Arena.

The visiting Bulldogs led 40-37 at the half, but encountered a different Kentucky squad in the second half. The Wildcats shot 65 percent after the break and outscored MSU 48-23 en route to a comfortable win in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.

Kentucky (11-3, 1-0 SEC) got 26 points, 10 rebounds and five assists from freshman wing James Young, who matched career highs in each category. Freshman forward Julius Randle had his first single-digit scoring game of his college career, but pulled down a game-high 14 rebounds. The No. 14 Wildcats also got 12 points from both Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress.

"I think we were rusty," said Kentucky associate head coach John Robic, who sat in for head coach John Calipari in the postgame press conference. The UK boss left the arena immediately after the game to meet his son, Brad, at the hospital after knee surgery to repair a torn ACL.

"Having (11) days, even the players were like, ‘We finally get to play a game.' It's just the way the schedule went, but I do think that we were a little bit rusty… We weren't ready for the game when it started. And it took us some time."

The Cats' fortunes changed when they started using their size advantage. They finished with 46 points scored in the paint and a 44-28 rebounding margin.

"I think we settled in the first half," Robic said. "You look at the shots that we took – 4-for-20 from 3. We knew we had a size advantage. It's something that we really worked on during this break, during this break. We got the ball where we wanted to in the second half."

Cauley-Stein (5-for-6), Poythress (5-6) and freshman center Dakari Johnson (4-4) each had their way around the basket against the undersized Bulldogs.

Tied at 47 with 16:50 to play, Kentucky went on a 7-0 spurt to grab its biggest lead to that point in the game. The Cats followed that with a 20-2 run to put the game away. Poythress brought the crowd of 23,638 to its feet with four dunks during the decisive stretch.

"That's how Alex's been practicing," Robic said. "He's played very, very well. His confidence level should be at an all-time high, and I really think that he's seeing that. He's bringing an energy. He's doing the things that he can do."

"It felt good," Poythress said. "I was just trying to bring some energy and just play. We were down at first, so we had to pick up the energy and start playing."

While UK was going one direction, Mississippi State was headed the other.

"In the second half we just didn't follow the gameplan," MSU coach Rick Ray said. "Here's what happens – guys get so wrapped up in their offense, and when you're not having success offensively, they carry it over to the defensive end, and that's something we've got to get better at.

"We're not going to start finishing at the rim all the sudden better than Kentucky. We're not going to become a better one-on-one basketball player all the sudden than Kentucky."

Mississippi State shot only 35 percent from the field in the second half, a figure that was aided by several easy baskets against the UK reserves as time was winding down. At one point in the half, the Cats were shooting 68 percent while the Bulldogs were at 26 percent.

Craig Sword led the Bulldogs (10-4, 0-1 SEC) with 19 points. Trivante Bloodman added 13 for MSU. Gavin Ware led the visitors with 10 rebounds.

NOTES:

• Kentucky is 90-20 all-time against Mississippi State, including a 25-2 mark at Rupp Arena.

• The Wildcats improved to 63-19 in SEC openers.

• UK is 77-2 at Rupp Arena under John Calipari and has won 18 consecutive home games.

• Kentucky travels to Vanderbilt on Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. ET tip on CBS.

Jeff Drummond has covered University of Kentucky sports for newspapers, magazines and online publications since 1988 and for FOX Sports since 2012. A Richmond, Ky., native, he currently resides in Lexington.

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