Considering how these Dogs had been routed a month ago at Kentucky, a ten-point final counted as progress of sorts. Still, "Obviously we didn't play our best, we didn't get the win," guard Craig Sword.
"I was really pleased with the way our guys competed today," Coach Rick Ray said. "When you play hard like that you can compete against anybody. But we're just not where we need to be in our bodies (numbers) and offensive skill level where we can't play hard."
For that matter nobody walked off the court smiling a lot, and Wildcat players weren't thrilled with a road success. They should have been according to Coach John Calipari. "We fought to try to win a game. I told the team be happy, these are all huge wins." Not least because today's outcome keeps the Wildcats in one week's striking distance of unbeaten league leader Florida.
Super freshman forward Julius Randle hit his season average on the button with a game-best 16 points for Kentucky, aided inside by starting center Dakari Johnson's nine points and team-leading eight rebounds. That the Bulldogs could have coped with; having to cope with off-the-bench work by fellow big men Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress with 14 combined points was too much. Those two alternates out-scored State's bench by themselves.
They also made up for what seemed clock-punching approaches by other Wildcats, which had Calipari going to his bench early and emphatically. And, effectively. It might not have shown in stats but a couple of interesting backcourt changes changed everything else.
"The only time we could play hard was when we put John Hood and Jarrod Polson in the game. I don't get it, but that happens when you have a young team," Calipari said. The two sub guards had one make apiece and five points in 28 combined minutes. Otherwise, "It's almost like we were trying to get out of the building," the coach said. "But these guys are good at home so hats off to them."
What the Bulldogs did well back at home after a dismal effort at Texas A&M was regain intensity and remember their offensive plans. Against a Wildcat defense that relies mostly on man, State went into the lane looking for matchups. It worked well for a half, forcing inside openings for Gavin Ware and Rocquez Johnson.
"They played man so we had to the chance to attack the rim," Sword said. "Also we finished a lot more than the last two games." Though the ‘finishes' weren't maximized; in the opening half the two Bulldog big men available had several very good shots just roll the wrong way on home-court iron. Since several such plays produced fouls too, the three-point opportunities were there, and missed.
Free throws did keep State in contention though, combined with some aggressive moves by Sword. His dunk at 11:59 even put the home team ahead for the first time, and eight-straight made free throws had it tied as late as 7:34. But the Bulldogs were without starting point guard I.J. Ready, down with flu symptoms, and turnovers contributed to the game's decisive stretch before halftime.
Leading by two points, Kentucky scored after a couple of miscues by guard Jacoby Davis for some breathing room. And twice missed Wildcat trey-tries turned out badly for the Bulldogs. Ware drew his second personal foul chasing one of them, and before halftime Johnson came down with another carom but let himself get stripped for a Randle basket and 32-23 lead at the break.
The second-half margin never got closer than six points. There were stretches where Kentucky could and likely should have asserted complete control, such as consecutive baskets by Randle no current Dog could have defended. Much like the Florida game, State managed to make just enough baskets to keep everyone close to the edge if not really on it. Getting Kentucky to drop into a zone defense might have been some sort of victory but at the price of preventing those trips to the foul line which kept MSU afloat in the first half.
The last best chance to come back was after Ware surprised everyone with a 18-footer for the 43-37 difference. Unfortunately for him Johnson got position for the basket and a Ware foul in response, making the free throw too.
The fundamental fact was Kentucky had too much size and skill to match, when the big Kats exerted themselves. "They're a very good team," Ware said. "They have big guys that can block shots, make moves in the paint, and push the ball up court." And while Ware tried to complement his scout team for giving UK-like looks in drills, that unit had nobody or body to compare to Randle or Cauley-Stein. Nor did the starting unit for that matter.
Ware, Sword, and guard Trivante Bloodman all had 12 points with ten more by Johnson off the bench. State got just one made-trey all day, by forward Colin Borchert, but that reflected Ray's mandate to attack rather than settle for long shots. Which as Kentucky knew is not a Bulldog strength in the first place. To an extent the plan worked as the Dogs were 22-of-28 at the foul line, to Kentucky's 12-of-18. But the visitors caught on eventually and closed the passing lanes.
"Coach said don't stare it down," Ware said. "Because their big men were collapsing in. it's a split-second that it's open, they had already collapsed."
About the modest final margin, "I wasn't really surprised," Kentucky's Johnson said. "this is a tough place to play and we knew they'd come out and fight. We just tried to keep on fighting them."
The Bulldogs do continue fighting, and certainly gave a better battle than at Texas A&M. Now Ray hopes his club carries this sort of effort into another home game, hosting Georgia on Wednesday. The coach did stress such a positive in post-game, Ware said.
"He said we did good, but don't think of it as a moral victory. We still have to work around this and try to get a win against Georgia."