Sparked by its third- or fourth-string big man, Kentucky belatedly imposed its will on Mississippi State in a Southeastern Conference opener Wednesday night.
Kentucky beat State by the expected wide margin. The final score was 85-63.
But getting there took some unexpected twists and turns.
With State leading 40-37 at halftime, Dakari Johnson sparked UK's major course correction. His eight points came in a second half that saw Kentucky amass 30 points from the paint.
Kentucky, the favorite to win the SEC and the league's best chance at a national championship (7/1 odds by Bovada), got outscored in the paint by Mississippi State in the first half.
Another surprise was how little Julius Randle contributed to the inside domination offensively. His eight points reflected State's defensive attention.
"He's a lottery pick," State Coach Rick Ray said before the game. "Such a physical presence. He doesn't just settle for a jump shot. If you play off, he's not just going to settle. He'll attack."
Randle attacked the glass, grabbing 14 rebounds. He also had one of the game's prettier plays. Facing the opposite baseline, he directed a lob with a flick of his hand into the basket.
Kentucky improved to 11-3 overall. James Young led the way statistically. He matched career highs of 26 points and 10 rebounds.
The first half suggested a change might be needed for the between-semester workouts, known colloquially as Camp Cal. Never mind the two-a-day or even three-a-day practices. Better go to four- or five-a-days.
Mississippi State outplayed Kentucky in the first half. The Bulldogs' reward was a 40-37 lead at intermission.
Kentucky, which hadn't played since beating Louisville on Dec. 28, looked like the same team that exited the 2013 portion of the schedule. Still freshman-oriented and still subject to the ups and downs of first-year players.
Nothing reflected the surprising first half more than points in the paint. State outscored UK 24-16 in the paint. The common thread to UK's three previous losses were getting outscored from the paint by Michigan State (44-40), Baylor (38-26) and North Carolina (38-34). Coincidentally, those were the only times Kentucky has been outscored in the paint this season.
The Cats compounded the problem by firing away from the perimeter. Seven of the first 10 shots were three-point attempts. UK did not score from the paint until a Cauley-Stein dunk — off a nifty touch pass by Dominique Hawkins — with 10:29 left in the first half.
Kentucky came out colder than a polar vortex. The Cats missed their first five shots, and made only two of the first 13.
Kentucky took 14 three-point shots in the half. The Cats came into the game averaging 15.6 three-point attempts. Young led UK with 15 points, but he made two of seven three-point shots in the process.
State seemed intent on drawing charges against Randle. Early in the game, he got called for a walk when a second defender suddenly appeared and got set to induce a charge.
Randle's only basket of the half came with 5:29 left.
Kentucky came out in the second half intent on going inside. The Cats did not take a three-point shot in the first 8 minutes. Coincidentally or not, UK took its largest lead of the first 25 minutes — a modest but encouraging four-point margin.
The second of Dakari Johnson's back-to-back layups put Kentucky ahead 51-47 with 16:03 left.
Johnson, who had scored three points in the most recent six games, gave Kentucky a boost off the bench. The Cats needed that after getting outscored 20-6 in bench points in the first half.
Kentucky broke it open midway through the second half. A 14-2 run buried Mississippi State. During the run, UK matched its 16 paint points of the first half with 9:12 left.
A minute later, Alex Poythress got the fans out of their seats with a one-hand dunk off a lob by Andrew Harrison.
That gave UK a 68-53 lead with 8:12 left. State had no baskets in the previous five minutes, one in the previous 10.
Poythress punctuated the night with another dunk. This time he took a lob from Aaron Harrison and dunked with his back to the basket.
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com