STARKVILLE, Miss. — Mississippi State had the enthusiasm, as Humphrey Coliseum was rocking a good hour before second-ranked Kentucky and the host Bulldogs tipped it off.
Mississippi State had the courage to ring up DeMarcus Cousins all week and pester the Cats' center have his cell phone number was posted on the World Wide Web.
Mississippi State had the creativity, coaxing Bulldogs fans into pulling on alternating red-and-white T-shirts, pulling out a country violinist for an extended version of the national anthem, even boasting one fan waving a cardboard cutout of John Chaney saying "I'll Kill You!"
Mississippi State needed just one more thing to pull off the upset Tuesday night.
Six fouls for Jarvis Varnado.
Kentucky held on to beat the Bulldogs 81-75 in overtime, but I'm not sure the Cats would be 25-1 had not State's shot-blocking center, and lone big man, not fouled out with 5:08 remaining.
Before that, Varnado had picked up his third and fourth foul in just a few seconds of each other, and a seat on the bench with 17:43 left.
He returned with 7:41 remaining, but he was out for the night not quite three minutes later.
The home team continued to build its lead, up 67-60 two minutes after Varnado's departure, but then State's grip started to slip.
Kentucky scored the final seven points of regulation to send the game into overtime. Then after a three-point play by John Wall put the visitors ahead 75-72 with 1:31 left in the extra period, Kentucky hit six more free throws the rest of the way to record the victory.
"That's why Kentucky is Kentucky," said State coach Rick Stansbury. "They find ways to win. That's why they're 25-1."
In a way, it was a gritty win. Despite playing its third game in six days, State was ready to rise to the occasion. Point guard Dee Bost scored 22 points. Kodi Augustus, averaging just 8.8 per game, scored 17.
When the Bulldogs executed a 13-2 run in the latter stages of the second half, The Hump was jumping.
Trouble was, Varnado was sitting. The senior had blocked just two shots, but he was the Maroon's only presence in the middle. Just having him on the court meant State's defense could at least keep the Cats honest, and on offense MSU had a bit of a low-post threat. Varnado scored 10 points.
But, without Varnado, you knew that State would have to win in regulation, and the Bulldogs' couldn't do it. The offense went dry. UK's DeAndre Liggins buried a huge three — "That's the one I remember," said Stansbury — for UK with 2:43 left to start the comeback.
Eric Bledsoe scored on a fast break to tie it at 65. Then Patrick Patterson buried a baseline jumper with 39 seconds left for the final points in regulation.
It didn't help the Bulldogs cause that leading scorer Ravern Johnson, averaging 13.7 points per game, was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team. Add no Varnado in the overtime and it was little to no chance for MSU.
This was the first of (at least) three tough road tests for Calipari's Cats. The second comes Saturday when Kentucky travels to quirky Memorial Gym for a matchup with the league's second-best team, Vanderbilt.
This one, there were several parts good fortune for the Cats, who made just one of 12 three-point shots in the first half. The Cats ended up making four of 24 threes on the night. State made 10.
"They should have won the game," said John Calipari, the Kentucky coach. "We just kind of reached out and grabbed one, I don't know how."
Stansbury wasn't happy with some calls down the stretch, but he said he would be politically correct.
"Will you pay half my fine for me?" he asked.
Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or email@example.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.