Hood, Polson steady Kentucky in 69-59 win at Miss. State

jtipton@herald-leader.comFebruary 8, 2014 

STARKVILLE, Miss. — As another game where the opponent competed and Kentucky just played meandered past the second television timeout, John Calipari tried to shake things up. He inserted freshman Derek Willis into the game.

"I saw Jon Hood sit back in his chair, and it's like (the sound of a why-bother exhale)," Calipari said.

Either Calipari noticed that Hood still cared in his fifth UK season as an infrequently called-up player or simply was flipping through a Rolodex of options. Whatever the motivation, the UK coach made a snap decision.

"Johnny Hood, get in there," Calipari recalled saying. "And before I got 'Jaaa' out, he had jumped up, had his sweatsuit off and was in the game."

That kind of eagerness enabled Kentucky to beat Mississippi State 69-59 Saturday.

Players like Hood and Jarrod Polson matched State's effort enough so Kentucky's superiority in talent and depth could prevail.

Afterward, Calipari saluted State Coach Rick Ray's ability to get his team competing so hard despite coming off four straight losses and having an already incomplete roster whittled down further by the flu sidelining point guard I.J. Ready.

"I love the fact his team fights," Calipari said. "That's all I want to see."

Ray noted that only three days earlier, he had his own issues with lack of effort. The Bulldogs barely competed in a 20-point loss at Texas A&M. While UK's effort receded, State's improved.

"When you play hard like that and you have a competitive spirit, you can compete with anybody," Ray said.

The State coach declined an invitation to cite the presence of Kentucky — "everybody's Super Bowl," as Calipari likes to note — as the motivation for his team's effort.

"I hope it was not Kentucky," he said. "... I think I made it very apparent I wasn't happy with the way we played at Texas A&M. Hopefully, no matter who the opponent was, we'd have come out and played this way. We had a couple days."

To hear Calipari, he planned a similarly difficult time straight ahead for Kentucky's players.

"The only time we played hard is when I put Hood and Jarrod Polson in the game," he said. "I thought Dakari (Johnson) fought. And I thought the rest of us just went through the motions of playing.

"And I don't get it. But that's what happens when you're a young team."

Hood, who had played 23 minutes all season (and just five since SEC play began), made his first three-pointer since November to help fuel a mini breakout late in the first half. But shooting wasn't his aim.

"I just tried to come in and bring enthusiasm," he said. "... Hustle is a factor in, like, every game. We brought it out today. Guys were able to come in off the bench like myself and Jarrod and help these other guys out, bring enthusiasm and energy."

Calipari did not specifically instruct Hood to provide hustle. He did not have to. To send Hood to the scorer's table sent the message.

"I understand what that means," Hood said. "That means if you go in, you play hard and you bring enthusiasm. You're supposed to give a lift."

Kentucky, which improved to 18-5 overall and 8-2 in the SEC, led 32-23 at halftime thanks, in part, to hustle plays by Polson and Hood down the stretch.

The Cats outscored State 9-2 in the final four minutes to take the nine-point lead, UK's largest of the first half.

As if to preview UK's take-charge stretch run, Polson made the most of a mismatch. State looked to get a tying basket from Gavin Ware, who was being guarded by Polson. Though giving up 7 inches, Polson somehow deflected the feed, which fueled a transition opportunity cashed in by a Randle dunk.

With UK ahead 27-21, Hood stationed himself in the left corner and waited for his teammates to arrive in transition. He swished the three, his first make from beyond the arc since Nov. 10 against Northern Kentucky, and only his second of the season.

Hood later hustled for a rebound of an Aaron Harrison missed three. The bonus possession resulted in a dunk when Harrison ripped a rebound from a State player and fed Randle at the basket.

Kentucky used its size to build several 12-point leads. But State would not go away quietly.

"I don't think there's been one game we had everybody play well," Calipari said almost wistfully. "We're waiting for that game. Part of it is we're young. They're playing every third game."

Calipari gave the underachieving freshmen another chance in the second half. Hood played only three minutes. "I'm going to go with our guys," he said.

Calipari made no secret of his dissatisfaction. The second half brought no turnaround.

For perhaps the first time, Calipari spoke of how elusive that transformation to a zealously competitive team can be.

"It may not happen this year," he said. "It may not happen."

Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227. Twitter: @JerryTipton. Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com.

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