STARKVILLE, Miss. — Through the first 32 minutes at Mississippi State on Tuesday night, Darius Miller had missed all four of his shots and been benched for not shooting another.
"My coach never had to take me out because I didn't shoot," Kentucky Coach John Calipari said after the game.
But when it absolutely, positively had to happen, Miller delivered. His 12 points in the final eight minutes helped UK rally to a 73-64 victory.
"I'm saying, 'You're out, next guy, I'm not going to play you,'" Calipari said of the Miller benching. "Then he went back in, and he's bombing balls. That's what I said, 'You're that senior. You're that glue to this team. They count on you to make those shots.'
"And he did it."
Not for the first time, State Coach Rick Stansbury noted.
A similar scenario played out in Kentucky's most recent road game: at Vanderbilt on Feb. 11. Except for a smattering of UK fans, a sellout crowd urged the home team to beat Kentucky. Miller was at first a non-factor with the home team trying to nurse a lead to the finish line.
At Vandy, Miller had no points until the 10:38 mark of the second half.
But then with UK staring at possible defeat, Miller suddenly and decisively imposed his will on the game. He scored all five of his points down the stretch, and found Doron Lamb with a pass that set up the go-ahead three-point basket with barely three minutes left.
"Miller is the fiber that holds that team together," Stansbury said. "He's the key to them. He was the total difference tonight. He stepped up and made plays when he had to make plays for that team."
Miller acknowledged the need he sensed to contribute. Kentucky trailed by as much as 13 and did not take its first lead until 4:11 remained.
"I knew we all were going to have to make plays," Miller said. "... I felt like I wasn't."
With UK trailing 55-48, Miller swished a three-pointer from the left wing with 7:53 left. It was his first basket.
Later, a call Stansbury considered pivotal involved Miller. With State ahead 60-53, Miller missed from the left wing, but the referees called a foul on Jalen Steele.
"We got the rebound on the shot," Stansbury said. "Huge play. Huge play of the game right there."
While Stansbury questioned the call, Miller said Steele fouled.
"He just slapped my elbow," Miller said, "and the referee was right behind me, luckily, so we got the call."
Later, with State ahead 62-58, Miller hit another three-pointer. He then added a clincher that put Kentucky ahead 71-64 with 1:29 left.
"He's a guy they look to when that game's on the line," Stansbury said of Miller. "... He's got one thing nobody else on the team has: He's got experience. He's been through a lot of wars. ... All those other guys, they deserve whatever they get. He's their most valuable player."
Miller's perimeter game foiled State's strategy. The Bulldogs emphasized neutralizing lobs for Anthony Davis. By choice, State took its chances with UK's perimeter shooting.
"They don't beat you continually shooting that ball," Stansbury said. "They beat you dunking it around that rim. We took that away. To Miller's credit, he jumped up and made some shots. ... You choose your poison."
Calipari used one of his pet phrases to describe Miller's knack for delivering in the clutch: will to win.
"I told them, 'If this game is close, your will to win will take over,'" Calipari said. "Just get it close."
Miller wasn't the only UK player who rose to the challenge. After a lackluster first half, Terrence Jones held his own with a sure-bet all-league player, Arnett Moultrie.
Calipari noted how he had to direct rhetorical fire at halftime to get Jones going.
"If it takes me to be mean for you to play, c'mon, man," the UK coach said. "Why should I have to do that? But, Terrence, he was a beast (in the second half). This kid guarded. This kid made shots."
Kentucky credited a revived defense for the comeback victory. Led by Michael Kidd-Gilchrist containing State point guard Dee Bost, UK limited the home team to 32 percent shooting in the second half (8-for-25).
State was efficient in the first half. "Very precise on both ends," Stansbury said.
State's effort, though palpable, was insufficient in the second half. As Stansbury noted, it didn't help to lose star freshman Rodney Hood to a knee sprain late in the first half.
"I don't think anybody who witnessed that game (chuckled) wouldn't say that those guys played with their hearts and their souls," Stansbury said of his players. "... There wasn't an ounce of energy they brought back to the locker room. They left everything they had on that floor."
Davis shoots threes
Davis, who posted his 12th double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds), also matched his previous total of three-point attempts against SEC teams. He had missed his only two tries in 12 previous league games. He missed his two attempts at Mississippi State.
When asked if the three-point shots alarmed him, Calipari said, "Nah. He's doing so many things, this kid deserves to shoot some balls. He's blocking shots. He's defending. He's in traffic rebounding, and I'm going to let him play a little bit."
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com