"They just found a way to win," said center Jarvis Varnado. "They found a way."
The Bulldog senior's comment was correct. While Mississippi State might have equally found their own ways to prevent losing the game, as well as the automatic NCAA berth that comes with a league tourney title, the facts were #2 ranked Kentucky did indeed find ways to snatch their second overtime victory of the year against MSU. The first one was by a 81-75 score in Starville.
The second was in front of over 20,000 folk at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena. And it hurt even worse. "Both of them are losses but this one is playing for the championship on the line," said senior guard Barry Stewart.
Coach Rick Stansbury could only congratulate his home-state team's triumph, as much as the loss wrenched his own guts. "They've shown why they're the best team in the league. They found a way to be the best team today for 45 minutes." Though Stansbury's players might have disagreed with their coach on that point. The Wildcats (32-2) were better in crunch times after Mississippi State (23-11) held more than their own for the first 39 minutes.
"It's hard to explain," said junior guard Phil Turner. "Crushed. Almost like the life gets sucked out of you. We fought very hard, we just didn't come up with a victory."
Yet with 8.2 seconds left in regulation State certainly seemed positioned for the upset, after Stewart knocked down a pair of free throws for a 64-61 lead. It would be his last points of the day because during State's ensuing timeout the Bulldogs were ordered to foul whatever Wildcat got the inbounds. Even Stewart, the best backcourt defender, who had picked up his third and fourth personals at the four-minute mark.
"It was the gameplan," Stewart explained. "We didn't want to get beat on a last-second shot. So we were going to make our guy take one dribble; it was the guy I was guarding. I had to sacrifice for the team, that's something I'd do any day."
That guy was UK guard Eric Bledsoe who in the two-shot foul setting had his own instructions of make one and miss one. He did his job and the intentional carom ended up in the right corner in the hands of John Wall. The guard's three-pointer to win missed but somehow in the scrum ended up in the hands of DeMarcus Cousins for a layup at the buzzer. Video review blessed the on-court call though Dogs--who hadn't seen any replay when asked--were skeptical of the sequence.
"I think (Patrick) Patterson got his hand on the ball; Wall came and got it; pump-faked, dribbled, shot…missed and (Cousins) caught it, pump-faked, and got a bucket," recalled Turner. "All in four seconds." Varnado had his own questions—"Longest 4.9 seconds of my life"--along with a crucial, candid confession that he could have gone after the block or at least fouled Cousins before the putback. He didn't try. "When it rimmed-off and Cousins grabbed it I thought the time went off. Unfortunately it didn't and he laid it back in."
Overtime was Wall's time. The fabulous freshman was not having a fabulous afternoon, having missed 10 of his 13 shots in regulation and gone 4-of-7 on free throws. But with his nemesis Stewart stuck on the bench Wall was able to take charge and three times put his team in front. The biggest make though came with Kentucky leading 69-67 going into the final half-minute with the shot clock fading fast. Off-balance, falling towards the left corner, he somehow got it over Bost on a line-drive that even more somehowish cleared the iron and snapped the net. "When I saw him going up I thought it was off. But big players make big plays so that's what he did."
State had no answer; in fact it took 15 seconds to get off any shot and Ravern Johnson's trey-try was short. Almost ten more seconds of scrambling and swatting found Bost getting the loose ball and flipping it in at 5.8 ticks. Bost fouled Cousins on the throw-in and making the second free throw meant the Wildcats could ignore Riley Benock's made-trey at the very last buzzer.
Wall still came up second in all-game scoring with 17 points on 5-of-15 shooting with six freebies, but had nine assists and five steals. The arena's notoriously tight rims meant lots of long rebounds and he came up with six. Bledsoe led his team with 18 points and two treys, though Kentucky had a miserable arc-afternoon shooting 4-of-16. Patterson and Cousins combined for 25 points and 16 boards and threatened at times to take over the paint. But only threatened.
Because Varnado was heroic against a series of bigger bodies UK could shuttle in-and-out, scoring 18 points with nine boards and blocking five shots. Bost scored 16 for State and Stewart 11 with five treys between them. But the hottest State shot was Johnson as he threw in a game-best 20 points, a dozen in the first half. It was a day of redemption for the junior wingman because he had been suspended for the regular-season contest when his outside offense might have tipped things the other way on the home court.
"I knew I had to come out and just make some shots today. I was excited to play because I didn't get to play last time," Johnson said. Johnson did not let the excitement carry him away though; nor did he just settle for the usual long shots. He threw UK's defensive ideas out-of-synch early by attacking the lane for shorter jumpers arched above any coverage. "I heard their coach say ‘he's a shooter' so every time I pump-faked they went for it and I got an easier shot." Johnson was 8-of-15 overall and 4-of-8 at the arc, as State hit ten treys in 27 tries.
Both offenses wanted to work in close in the opening half, which played to Varnado's favor as he scored in one lane and altered shots at the other. An early MSU lead got away as Stansbury gambled on lots of substitutions, yet the backups did not let the Wildcats take that much advantage. Their defense was just as energetic in both man or the zone Stansbury mixed-in at times, and forced Bledsoe and others to take more long shots than their gameplan prefers. Varnado and Johnson scored the last points of the first half for a 35-31 lead at intermission.
Wall tried to assert himself to begin the second period and Stansbury used a timeout to settle his troops. And, use the zone even more series. A series of lead-swaps found State easing in front by 62-57 aided by missed Wildcat free shots and another Johnson trey. Varnado might have put it out of reach with free throws but he was fouled hard by Cousins and missed both at 1:06. That left the door cracked for Kentucky, as Wall turned an inbounds fumble by Stewart into a layup at 0:40. Bost also missed two free shots as he went to the line with legs cramping. "No excuse, I wasn't focused," he said. Still it seemed State was in good shape as Wall double-clutched in the lane and left his shot short, with Stewart rebounding and getting those free shots at 8.2 seconds.
Which left more than enough time as it played out. Stansbury said the intentional foul was the right call. "I'll take those chances every time," he said. "Very few times if I've ever seen that foul cause somebody not to win a game." And of course it took what the coach called "an absolutely horrible bounce" for Kentucky to even have those repeated last-chances.,
"It was just one play can change a game," said Bost, who said he hit Wall's arm after the shot with no call.
"There were a lot of things we didn't do to finish the game off," said Johnson.
The overriding locker room question of course was did the game finish State's hopes of a NCAA at-large berth. The Bulldogs knew coming to Nashville they needed to at the very least reach the finals round to have real hopes of a bid. A championship would have solved all such issues just as a year ago when State blew threw four wins to take the automatic bid.
This year State left town before the selection announcements. A few left hopeful. "Yeah, we deserve it," said Bost. "If they put us in we're going to show why we deserve it. If we don't, we've still got more basketball."
The all-tournament team was taken entirely from Sunday's finals with Stewart and Varnado representing State; and MVP Wall, Cousins, and Bledsoe from Kentucky.