Date story published: Sunday, January 24, 1999
Last weekend, Kentucky Coach Tubby Smith punctuated a new get-tough policy by saying he would not be happy until April.
April came to Kentucky early this year.
Defense, the phase of the game that most concerns Smith, powered UK to a 76-49 victory over Mississippi State yesterday.
The Cats made quick work of a Bulldogs team that had trouble scoring even before coming to Lexington. In bolting to a 15-0 lead at the start, UK forced turnovers on 11 of Mississippi State's first 15 possessions.
Mississippi State, which got shots to the rim only twice in the first eight minutes (just 15 times in the first half), did not have more points than turnovers until almost four minutes into the second half.
By then, Smith, a connoisseur of fine defense, was savoring a vintage performance.
"I thought we had a tremendous defensive effort," the UK coach said. "Today, we were just on top of our game, especially defensively."
Better still, Kentucky used only man-to-man defense to stifle the Bulldogs. The Cats retreated to a zone at Mississippi last weekend, a development that helped prompt Smith's get-tough policy. A UK zone also contained Auburn last week.
Yes, Smith said, he found the effective man-to-man against Mississippi State especially pleasing.
"That gave me some confidence that we can guard because I was concerned if we could stop people one on one," he said. "When we get to a point in time (i.e., the post-season), you have to stop people one on one."
Of course, UK's defense put a damper on first-year Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury's return to his home state. But Stansbury, who grew up in Wolf Creek, could step back and admire the unyielding excellence of UK's defense.
"They played man-to-man as well as it can be played," said Stansbury, whose team shot a season-low 31.1 percent. "You practice for Kentucky's defense. And then you get into a game and they are so much better than you think. That was the best defensive execution I have seen."
Smith credited freshman Desmond Allison, who made his first career start, with helping to ignite Kentucky .
"Desmond starting gave us a lot of energy early," the UK coach said. "He's a very gifted athlete. And he made things happen early. Keeping the ball alive as well as a good defensive job on (shooting guard) Bart Hyche. He plays with great hustle and great energy. And you saw that today."
During UK's 15-0 run to start the game, Allison blocked a Hyche three-pointer and then sped to a fast-break dunk that made it 6-0.
Mississippi State did not get a ball to the rim until Tang Hamilton's missed trey at the 17:32 mark. After Joe Marshall missed a jumper a minute later, the Bulldogs did not get another shot to the rim until less than 12 minutes remained in the half.
"We didn't give them an opportunity to do anything," said Jamaal Magloire, who played 17 minutes in his return from a one-game suspension. "Our defense suffocated their team."
Mississippi State's first point, a Robert Jackson free throw, came with 12:15 left in the half. The Bulldogs did not get a basket until Hamilton's tip-in with 8:48 left snapped an 0-for-11 shooting streak to start the game.
"We were joking on the sideline about not letting them score in the game," UK forward Scott Padgett said. "But we knew that they would."
Nothing came easy for Mississippi State, which fell to 13-7 and 3-4 in the Southeastern Conference. The Bulldogs fell behind 22-3 on Allison's fast-break layup. Saul Smith's driving shot made it 30-7 with 5:12 left in the half.
"We didn't allow them anything out of their offensive set," Padgett said. "You could see them bickering amongst each other."
Kentucky held State's all-league center, Tyrone Washington, to six shots and eight points (his third straight game scoring less than 10 points). "We did a good job double-teaming on Tyrone Washington," Smith said.
Mississippi State's inability to hit a perimeter shot aided UK's defense. The Bulldogs did not make an outside shot until Hamilton's three-pointer with 7:53 left in the second half. It reduced the Cats' lead to 55-28.
Only eight points in the final 71 seconds enabled the Bulldogs to avoid scoring the fewest points by an opponent in Smith's two seasons as Kentucky coach. Kansas scored 45 against the Cats in the Great Eight earlier this season.
After months of suspensions, lineup changes and emotional Armageddons against Maryland, Duke, Louisville, etc., the Cats said it felt good to soundly beat an opponent with solid defense.
"A game we could enjoy," Smith said before adding, "for a change."