John Clay: Willingness to play together serves Kentucky in clutch

jclay@herald-leader.com,JohnClayFebruary 22, 2012 

A couple of weeks back, Florida Coach Billy Donovan, who is familiar with the look of a national title contender, said he admired the "disposition" of the players on this Kentucky basketball team.

Monday, on the SEC basketball coaches' teleconference, Vanderbilt skipper Kevin Stallings said that he didn't see any "cantankerous" types wearing Wildcats uniforms this year, as perhaps he had seen on previous John Calipari teams.

There are times when such things can mean the difference between winning and losing, and Tuesday night in Starkville, Miss., was one of those times.

In an electric atmosphere, before a hostile crowd, with circumstances not always breaking their way, the Cats for the most part stayed cool, calm and collected in their 13th straight conference victory, their seventh straight league win on the road.

Consider that Calipari's team quickly fell behind 12-2, breathing confidence into a Mississippi State that entered the game with a three-game losing streak.

Consider that Kentucky trailed 41-28 at the half, just the fifth time all year this team has faced a deficit at intermission. It was the first time Kentucky had been on the short end of the halftime score since traveling to Tennessee back on Jan. 14.

Mississippi State Coach Rick Stansbury lamented the loss of starter Rodney Hood in the first half to a knee contusion, but UK lost significant sub Kyle Wiltjer to a bruised knee early, then sat point guard Marquis Teague the final eight minutes because of foul trouble.

The Cats won anyway, in no small part by remembering who they are — an unselfish defensive-minded team that collaborates on both ends of the floor, gets down to business and gets the job done.

The Darius Miller who timidly turned down a wide-open shot in a loss at Ole Miss last year as a junior made big shot after big shot down the stretch on Kentucky's trip to the Magnolia State this year.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist continued to be the jack of all trades, fearlessly driving to the basket on offense, grabbing the challenge and then shutting down Mississippi State's Dee Bost — 16 points the first half, five the second — in the second half.

Almost lost in the key plays was Anthony Davis, the rookie center scoring 13 points and grabbing 11 rebounds for his 12th double-double of his first (and only) college season.

What was not lost was that twice now, against teams of talent, playing on the road, the Cats played lock-down defense down the stretch. At Vanderbilt on Feb. 11, the Commodores failed to score in the game's final 4:07, lost the lead and the game. Tuesday, Mississippi State scored two points in the final 5:09, lost the lead and the game.

"They're a great defensive team," said Stansbury.

Despite starting three freshmen and two sophomores, they continue to show the mental mettle of a mature team. Doron Lamb, not the primary point guard, took over for Teague and did not commit a turnover in 31 minutes. Meanwhile, Calipari complimented Teague for cheering his teammates on from the bench. In the end, Kentucky outscored the Bulldogs by 22 points in the second half, 45-23.

In the post-game news conference, in the usual black sweat suit he wears for road games, Calipari talked about his team's will to win.

There is a fierceness and a fortitude in that, no doubt, but there's also a spirit of cooperation and teamwork that should not be overlooked.

Saturday, against Ole Miss, Davis sat a significant part of the first half with two fouls. Didn't matter. Tuesday, Teague was the player taken off the floor by foul trouble. Didn't matter.

The Cats simply got the job done.

John Clay: (859) 321-3226. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com.

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