There would be other and sometimes better moments for the Bulldogs. Just not nearly enough to seriously threaten #1-ranked Kentucky’s perfect record in a 74-56 victory at Humphrey Coliseum. The Wildcats continued their run at history with a 28-0, 15-0 SEC record.
Mississippi State fell to 12-16 and 5-10 SEC with a third-straight loss, all of them on the home court. This one wasn’t nearly as painful as narrow defeats by Ole Miss and Arkansas. By any measure Kentucky was going to be better at, well, everything. So the Bulldogs were not too down about losing a major mismatch.
“The thing I reiterated is no one has cancelled their season because the lost to Kentucky, to my knowledge,” Coach Rick Ray said. “We have to pick up the pieces and move on to the next game.” One which will not be against anyone approaching Kentucky’s caliber.
Ray’s post-game feelings were openly mixed with good reason. Despite stumbles at tipoff the Bulldogs gave an excellent effort and credible performance. State trailed by only five points five minutes into the second half, and were still in reasonable range at 12:00 playing good defense and making just enough offensive plays.
That was when Kentucky showed why, as Ray said, “They’re so good. “It’s an eight-point game with 11:47 left, and it goes to a 20-point game in a matter of three minutes.”
Sure enough, the Wildcats went on a 13-1 tear to take total control. The lead would peak at 67-43 en route to the final margin. Ray did admit the “disparity at the end” was his disappointment. “For people who watched they’ll see it as a difficult game until they had one stretch run. I’d like to have played how we played the first 29 minutes and say we did a good job, but it kind of got away from us the last 11 minutes.”
On the other bench UK Coach John Calipari wasn’t entirely pleased with all the individual play. He was satisfied that someone or –ones were always able to meet the needs of most moments. Just as has been the Kentucky case this SEC season.
“We did fine and we’ll figure it out. It’s a long season, three games left in the regular season. This was a trap game to be honest, and I thought Mississippi State played well. If they make free throws they probably beat us.”
That was being the generous victor. Calipari did have a point about Bulldog struggles on the charity stripe. The home team went 16-of-27 and at one point they were 11-of-20. “I don’t know,” Sword shrugged. “We needed those free throws those, we’d probably still be in the game.”
Still by no means was free throwing the Bulldog back-breaker. Worse was 2-of-11 work from the curved stripe, and both those treys—by guard Fred Thomas—came after nine total misses and when the outcome was entirely certain. Kentucky was better of course, 6-of-13, with Aaron Harrison and Devin Booker each throwing in a pair as they scored 16 and 14 points respectively.
Their treys were more like icing. The Wildcat front line took longer than they or everyone else expected to assert obvious superiority, starters and subs alike. In this, Ray’s game planning paid off…for a while. “I thought we did some really good things as far as limiting their opportunities.”
What Mississippi State’s frontcourt didn’t limit was freshman forward Trey Lyles. The rookie ended up with more touches than his touted frontcourt teammates and produced, scoring 13 of his game-high 18 points in the first half.
“Just being aggressive and attacking the basket and rebounding,” said Lyles.
He ought have added blocking shots. Kentucky swatted nine Bulldog balls officially and influenced at least that many more into misses, not all in the paint. Starting State big men, big being a relative word in this mismatch-up, center Gavin Ware and forward Roquez Johnson, each took just four official shots.
It wasn’t for lack of working the ball inside. They also drew plenty of fouls, but combined 8-of-15 shooting at the stripe negated potential gains. Besides, Kentucky had no lack of frontcourt depth to survive whistles. Since the Bulldogs weren’t threatening to get a lot done jump-shooting, though, the ball had to come inside every chance.
Sword tried, going 2-of-8 in the field and 6-of-8 at the stripe for ten points. Eight of his total came before intermission. “In the first half everything was coming to me, I was getting drives to the goal and it opens up everybody else. Some way I was getting in there and drawing fouls.”
Kentucky was close to blowing it open in that half anyway, leading by as much as 14 and a dozen still at 2:29. Somehow the Bulldogs cut it to 33-27 on free throws and drives, before Tyler Ulis threw in a bomb before halftime.
“We let too many drives come and let them go to the free throw line too much,” Karl-Anthony Towns said. “We did a great job the second half of making the easy plays and contesting shots.”
Not for a while. When Sword got on the break and hit Johnson for a layup it was only a 41-37 difference. The chance got away though as Johnson fouled Towns for two free shots made, then Sword forced a long shot that rimmed all the way around and out.
Kentucky couldn’t entirely put it away until mid-half, when Calipari changed schemes. Or did away with them, rather.
“Rick did a great job preparing for our stuff. What I ended up saying was bag all of it and get in the lane. That’s basically what we did the second half.” The Bulldogs had no answer for pure power, especially bigs with agility and passing skills. So Ray wasn’t really shocked the big run finally came.
“It happened because they’re really, really good. And out shot selection became bad,” Ray said. “Once we stopped having success on offense we kind of went our separate ways on defense.”
By getting the meaningless treys to fall Thomas ended up State scoring leader with 14 points. Ware had nine with as many rebounds. For Kentucky, Towns got up to second-half speed to finish with 12 points and ten boards. The Wildcats ended up just one miss under 50% shooting, and made good on 12 of the 13 free throws.
His first three points pushed Sword past 1,000 for his career. “Another day tell me that I probably feel something, but right now I don’t care.”
Oh, and as for those fast timeouts? “To get us to calm down,” Sword said. “I don’t blame him because if he hadn’t done that it would have got out of hand early.”