The Bulldogs remained headed in the other direction, dropping a fourth-straight league game and falling to 19-9, 6-7 SEC. But for 33-plus minutes Mississippi State was positioned for a season-turning upset, dictating terms at each end and shaking off every Wildcat challenge. Until, that is, they came out of a timeout called by Kentucky after Dee Bost hit a trey for a 60-53 lead.
Afterwards everything changed and State, playing shorthanded again after a first-half injury to forward Rodney Hood, ran out of gas at last. Twenty minutes after the horn Coach Rick Stansbury was still struggling with the heartbreak.
"But I don't think anybody that witnessed that game wouldn't say those guys didn't play with their hearts and souls, and in adverse situations," the MSU coach said.
The spirits indeed were willing but the Bulldog bodies eventually weakened, worn down by Kentucky getting much more physical than the first half. And, by the timely contributions of guard Darius Miller. Scoreless in the first half, he notched nine of his dozen total points down the deciding stretch starting with three free throws at 6:11. He added a regular trey at 4:44, then broke Mississippi State's back with a final trey at 1:27 for a seven-point margin.
"We at the end kind of got a little away from them," Coach John Calipari said. "Darius made big shots, we made some free throws, down the stretch we made some stops." A lot of stops as after Bost's trey the Bulldogs missed all but a short baseline stick by backup center Wendell Lewis at 5:08, and Jalen Steele jumper at 1:55. The team's other five events missed, or were blocked, and even free throws went off the home iron.
It didn't help the home crowd's frame of mind watching the Wildcats score seven of their last 20 points at the charity stripe, or go 15-of-17 there in the second half. Of course for the first half Kentucky was just 2-of-4 on free throws, but most of the 10,364 packing the Hump could overlook that as State was 4-of-8 at the stripe in the second half, with no one-pointers after 8:06.
Stansbury looked at the larger picture. "There's always plays you can point to in that game. When you play a team like Kentucky everything gets magnified," he said. "I know we were up seven, we foul on that three point shot and we'd gotten the rebound. A huge play right there."
For his part Bost thought things really got away much sooner, after State had left the locker room still hot off a 41-29 intermission lead. "But we didn't make the same shots we made the first half. And they made a run the start of the second half, and they got us." That run was sparked by self-induced Bulldog mistakes such as two errant lobs in transition and other rushed shots likely from the excitement.
Calipari offered his own explanation to why the second period was so different from an often-futile first, where the Wildcats shot just 39%, weren't drawing fouls or really attacking the iron at all. "The second half Terrence Jones played," he said. "And Darius made shots." In the first half Miller was scoreless and Jones just 2-of-7 for five points and only two rebounds. This was not Kentucky's plan.
"I was a little mean at halftime," Calipari said. "I tell these guys if it takes me being mean for you to play, why, man? But Terrence was beast, he made shots, he guarded." Meanwhile super-freshman Anthony Davis stopped trying to play shooting guard and went to the paint. And often took over, getting nine second half points to finish with a double-double of 13 points, 11 rebounds.
But scheming had nothing to do with the first-half events which changed everything in the long term. Down 29-21 with the ball, UK guard Marquis Teague lost control and the ball ended up in a tied tussle. It would have been Kentucky possession except Teague earned a technical for post-whistle activities. At the same time Bulldog freshman Hood was lying on the court with what Stansbury called a sprained knee, though full exams are due Wednesday morning.
Bost made free throws off the technical and made it sting more by striking for three as State stormed out ahead 36-23 and maintained the margin by halftime. But the loss of Hood, the only true small forward on the MSU roster, meant adjustments for both sides. Kentucky had the better of it because not only could 6-7, 232-pound forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrest lean on Bost much of the second half.
He was able to work against either Bost or Brian Bryant, a mismatch State could not win. Gilchrist scored a dozen in the last half and a team-best 18 total, with ten rebounds. Jones and guard Doron Lamb finished with 11 each as five Wildcats scored double-digits and six accounted for all the scoring.
State's bench actually was a bit more productive with 13 points by Steele, including three treys; and two from Lewis. Bost still came away game-best scorer with 21 points and seven assists, hitting three longballs and all his eight free throws. Forward Arnett Moultrie worked hard for his 13 points and 11 boards, but after sticking the game's first goal at 19:05, for a three-pointer, center Renardo Sidney didn't scratch again and missed all his five shots. He also missed both his crucial free throws at 3:52 after Kentucky had taken a three-point lead.
Stansbury gave guard Deville Smith two first-half minutes but nothing in the last period, riding six players the whole half with obvious effects on their down-the-stretch energy. Most obviously, when Davis took the ball three long and uncontested strides through the flat-footed Dog defense for a decisive score at 2:10.
It wasn't a polished performance by Kentucky or for that matter poised as both Teague and Davis earned technical fouls in the first half. In the second Moultrie, frustrated after not scoring a Lewis miss, semi-tripped Jones headed upcourt and was whistled for a T as well. UK's final points came on free throws after Bost simply two-handed shoved Gilchrist over the end line and down. Fortunately everyone kept their tempers.
The Wildcats spent most of the first period trailing by double-digits and not seeming certain what to do about it as their pure power game sputtered. As Moultrie pointed out, "We did a good job taking away all the dunks and their strengths, getting lobs. Me and Sidney did a good job of that tonight."
"I think we came out comfortable," admitted Miller. "And we never should to that, especially against a team as talented as they are."
Without Hood's agility on defense, Stansbury ran more zone than he'd hoped in the last half. The result was Miller sticking his long shots, one from at least 25 feet that felt more like four points than three. "Choose your poison," Stansbury said.
"That's why they are what they are. That's why they're the best team in the country. But anybody who witnessed that game understands just how hard our guys played." Though this, too, added to the coach's frustrations. Had his team played this hard and well they would have come into the expected showdown on a winning streak and playing for high SEC stakes at tournament time.
Now the Bulldogs are under break-even and have to hope 6-6 peers Alabama, LSU, and Tennessee also drop games tomorrow. And Saturday brings what now shapes up as a must-win rematch at Alabama, not just to keep alive hopes for a SEC Tournament bye but also in NCAA selection status. Bost only hopes the team that was beating #1 for 30-plus minutes shows up in Tuscaloosa.
"We can play anybody on any given night, we just have to be consistent," Bost said. "We've got to get our heads up, we can't go to Alabama with our heads down."