Mississippi State had a two-game home win streak snapped, slipping to 18-8 and 6-5 SEC. The Bulldogs also saw their three-year string of successes against Kentucky, longest in program history, ended. But only just.
"We played the number-two team in the country down to the wire," said guard Barry Stewart.
And beyond. Because with 30.4 seconds showing in regulation the home team had possession and a shot at breaking a 67-67 tie their way. Even with center Jarvis Varnado confined to the bench the last five minutes by five fouls that shot and the game were there for the taking. Point guard Dee Bost, the first option, was hounded into dumping to Stewart who with maybe four ticks on the shot clock half-jumped, hoping to draw obvious contact from Wildcat counterpart John Wall. It was something State's senior guard has done before, and maybe Wall knew.
"He fouled when I went off, but they aren't calling that at the end of the game," Stewart said. "So when I went up he contested it pretty good, I didn't get the call." Nor much of a loft on the shot that barely ticked iron. UK's DeAndre Liggins did little better on his baseline buzzer try, forcing extra innings. Where the combination of Varnado's absence and Kentucky's fabulous freshmen was more than State could handle.
"They should have won the game," said Wildcat Coach John Calipari. "We kind of reached out and grabbed one and I don't know how we did it. But we did."
Kentucky did it behind a trio of monumental efforts. Cousins muscled for 19 points and 14 rebounds, seven at each end of the floor, and even issued three assists when State posts collapsed on him. He also came out better under official scrutiny than did his counterpart Varnado, though four fouls limited him to 30 minutes for doing all that damage.
"Cousins is a load," Varnado said. "I mean, Wall is the man on their team but Cousins makes them go. When he's playing well that's when they are at their best." Junior forward Patrick Patterson was nearly as dominant around the goal with 19 points and 10 boards, particularly six offensive rebounds. He even stuck a three-pointer early in the affair.
Then there was triggerman Wall, who seemed to be having an off-evening offensively…until a look at the final box showed 18 points, a startling ten rebounds, and eight assists. "For the most part we kept him in check," said Stansbury. "Down the stretch he made a couple of huge plays for them." Most notably his go-ahead jumper three-point play at 91 seconds of overtime. His 44 minutes were most of anyone who saw action, and he Wall missed all his trey-tries he was good on some crucial free throws. In fact the Wildcats scored 21 times at the stripe and ought to have had more with 31 total trips. That was very nearly double the home team's 11-of-16 free throwing.
State got 22 points from Bost who at times had to carry his team's offense, which meant taking ten trey-tries of which just two hit. Still his threat allowed teammates to work open, such as PF Kodi Augustus for 17 points and four treys; and Stewart for 16 points with three longballs. The Dogs very nearly won this one from long-range, against the SEC's top club at defending the arc. And this despite the suspension of top gunner Ravern Johnson for what Stansbury would only call his "attitude". State was 10-of-35 at arc without Johnson.
The bigger loss, though, was Varnado. Having picked up just one personal in the first half he drew a pair of fast whistles to begin the second and the game was permanently changed. "I couldn't stay on the floor," said the senior center as he played just 23 minutes with 10 points and five boards. "They did a good job of keeping me out of the game." Without the SEC's leading rebounder, the Bulldogs lost on the glass 52-35. "We were without Jarvis the whole second half and you know the difference he would make," said Stansbury.
Calipari certainly did. "Obviously that hurt them."
Neither team was at their offensive best initially with a 4-4 tie at the first TV break and a 20-20 deadlock after Bost stuck a trey at 7:58. That was when Wall first asserted himself with a fake-and-shake jumper and daring drive for a layup, foul, and free throw. Kentucky led as much as 29-22 as the Bulldogs only mustered free throws for nearly six minutes. But a couple of direct attacks by Varnado and Bost had the margin down to 32-29 at intermission.
Everything changed when Varnado was called for fouls at 18:16, 17:48, and when State didn't pull him again at 17:43. "It was so quick. My fourth foul was kind of suspect, but the ref thought it was a foul." And that's the only opinion which mattered. Even then State adjusted well as Augustus played both inside and outside and hit a trey. Not until Cousins came back from a break to score five quick points on three possessions did the Wildcats look to be taking charge, 56-51.
They weren't. Augustus banked in a long three to start a short surge capped by Varnado's return, rebound, basket and free throw for a three-point led. Then he made contact with Daniel Orton going after a MSU miss at 5:08. "He said I held him. I don't know, I have to live with that. The tam played without me, they were playing team ball trying to win. But we came up a little short."
Not for a while though, and aided by some hurried—and missed—long shots by Bledsoe the Dogs had an opening. Augustus free throws and a tip-in by F Romero Osby, who'd started in place of Johnson and was now playing big forward, had State in front 67-60 with three minutes left. By 2:00 the deficit was just two as Liggins made good from long range and Bledsoe finished a break. Bost's aggressiveness hurt this time as he simply charged smack into a positioned Cousins under the goal.
"We had four empty possessions," Stansbury said. "Kentucky scores three out of four. There are plenty of plays we can look on and say if we did this or that…" Because at 0:39 Patterson was left alone on the right baseline and popped. "Huge shot," said Stansbury. "You pick your poison." He also picked 30.4 ticks to call time for the last play that never really developed.
State had manned most of the night but with no real big man available zoned in overtime. So Kentucky went to Cousins and Patterson inside to draw fouls and convert three of four chances. Bost offset that with his tying trey, but gambled on the inbounds pass and slammed into Bledsoe. Even when he missed both shots, Patterson came away with the rebound and Cousins got to another offensive carom and tipped it in.
Osby made the final tie-score with his hard move at the goal, but Wall slipped downcourt ahead of everyone for the go-ahead layup, foul, and free pitch at 1:31. State felt forced this time to play to tie again but it was Osby who had to attempt the long shot and it didn't go. Wall worked both the clock and Stewart who apparently got a piece of his arm. One free throw made it a two-play game, and when Bost went at the goal his layup was blocked, hard. After one Cousins free throw Augustus kept it fun with his three at 26.8 seconds.
And Wall couldn't quite put it away as he made just one free shot. Bost didn't shoot long to tie, he kept going into the lane. "I was thinking about getting to the line, but Coach said he wanted a two-pointer." State got neither as Bost just lost the handle for a turnover. This time it was Liggins sent to the stripe and he delivered both for the deciding free throws.
"We just couldn't close it out," Stansbury said. He also uttered some impolite words in post-game and, with admitted encouragement, was also impolitic about officiating as State was charged with 28 fouls to the bigger, more physical Wildcats' 17 personals. Varnado's shortened evening was most galling of all, though Stansbury did say his senior center needed to be more disciplined once he'd reached the third foul.
"I can't say what I really think. Four and five were nicky-pick fouls down there. It just made it very tough." When a query said, not quite accurately of course, that it wasn't meant to belabor the officiating angle, well.. "We'll belabor the heck out of them!" State's coach laughed. "I'll pay half (of any fine) and we'll let them have it! Ahhh, ****, on the road you don't get those calls!"
Bulldog players were more philosophical after cooling down. "We just stepped up," said Augustus of his forced stint at center. "I did what I had to do." As did the rest of the participants. "We still fought with the people we had," said Stewart who himself fouled-out at 44 seconds.
Whether or not State has Johnson back for Saturday's trip to LSU depends, Stansbury said, on how the junior handles the next couple of practice days. And the coach couldn't get over the fact that even without the team's top two scorers, one all night and the other half of the minutes, his team had been in position to take down Kentucky a fourth-straight time…and even more burnish their NCAA credentials. Calipari offered his support. "This is a top-25 team," he said. "I think at the end of the day they'll be right there with the opportunity to be in the NCAA Tournament." An event that Kentucky is on track to secure a #1 regional seed if not the highest seeding of all in the field come March.
But the Bulldogs still have no discernable margin for major error in the remaining schedule, especially against a SEC-winless Tiger team that is desperate and thus dangerous.
"As long as we stick together we'll be alright," Stewart said. "We can't let this get us down, we have to go on the road and get one."