Mississippi State led Kentucky 40-35 with four seconds left in the first half when Rick Stansbury did the thing that always gets a coach in trouble.
He decided to coach.
With fouls to give, he instructed his Bulldogs to foul Kentucky as the Cats were bringing the ball up the floor in hopes that the clock would run out before Kentucky could get past half-court and get off a shot.
So State fouled. Kentucky sniffed out the strategy. It was obvious, after all.
Kentucky inbounded to Brandon Knight. State went for the foul. Knight went for the heave toward the basket from midcourt. The foul was called. After an officials confab, the men in the striped shirts ruled that Kentucky would get three shots at the foul line.
All heck broke loose — we're not talking about ESPN's crazy sky cam, either — and before it was over, Stansbury had been hit with a technical and Kentucky was at the line to shoot five free throws. Knight made four.
A probable 40-35 State lead at the half became a 40-39 State lead at the half.
"How we were down one, I have no idea," said UK Coach John Calipari, talking more about the way his team played than Stansbury's failed gambit.
"I didn't help our team," Stansbury admitted.
Skip to the second half, with 40 seconds left. Kentucky led 83-79. There's your four points right there.
The Cats won 85-79, and that's been Stansbury's year so far. From the Renardo Sidney controversy, to the boxing match in the stands in Hawaii, to Ravern Johnson's tweets ripping his coaching staff, it's been one thing after another for the Bulldogs.
So it would figure that after Kentucky had experienced so much trouble finishing games, there would be a Mississippi State meltdown at the end of the first half.
For the Cats, it was just what the doctor ordered. Coming off that tough four-point loss at Vanderbilt, Kentucky's fifth road loss this year, the Cats faced a dangerous foe. State is a mess, yes, but State has talent. If Sidney, Johnson and Dee Bost play up to their potential, the Bulldogs can be a beast. And for a good part of Tuesday night, State played pretty close to its potential.
But after the wild end to the first half, Calipari's Cats capitalized. They outscored State 19-10 over the first six minutes of the second half to take a 58-50 lead.
Second half, overall, Kentucky played well. The Cats shot 66.7 percent (18-for-27) for the final 20 minutes. They got transition buckets. They forced turnovers. Brandon Knight ended up with 24 points. He also contributed seven assists. Doron Lamb burst out of a scoring slump with 20 points.
OK, down the stretch, Kentucky reverted to past bad habits. Maybe we should resign ourselves to the fact that this young UK team is just not going to finish games in convincing fashion. Not losses. Not even wins.
"Down the stretch just bothered me," Calipari said. "It got hairy. We had a chance to lose the game."
In the final 1:05, Kentucky missed four of six free throws. Two of those were the front ends of one-and-ones. Another was on the back end.
But it was what happened on the back end of the first half that served as Kentucky's catapult.
"Don't even ask me about it," Stansbury said in the post-game news conference. "I'm going to tell you that before I even get to the podium."
After last year's two tough losses to Kentucky, and the technical on Tuesday, Stansbury looked for all the world like Mike Davis, the former Indiana coach who let losing to Kentucky overwhelm his psyche.
On this Tuesday, Stansbury had the upper hand, only to give it to Kentucky.
The Cats were happy to take the gift.
"I'm happy we won," Calipari said. "You take it, and you march on."
Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or email@example.com. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.