Kentucky’s 88-81 victory at Mississippi State Tuesday night provided an unwanted flashback.
UK fans may recall Karl-Anthony Towns hanging on the rim after a dunk at LSU two seasons ago. A technical foul sent Coach John Calipari into a conniption fit. More importantly, it changed the tenor of the game and injected unneeded drama in a Kentucky victory.
Another freshman, Malik Monk, played the role of Towns in this sequel. He hung on the rim after dunking a lob from De’Aaron Fox. A 16-2 Mississippi State run ensued.
“We got into AAU mode,” Calipari said. “When you’re playing all freshmen and sophomores, there’s a point in the game they just think, ‘It’s OK, watch this.’
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“You’re never going to be that (championship) team if that’s what your mindset is. ... That’s who we are right now. I thought we were a month away. We may be two months away.”
A two-month timetable puts Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament, where failure to peak can mean the season’s over. When asked whether this new deadline on UK getting it together gave him enough time to make it work, Calipari said, “Then you’re basically saying their will is stronger than my will.
“You know me pretty well.”
Translation: Calipari will dictate, players will submit.
“If you’re not focused on what we’re doing as a team, then you can’t be in there,” Calipari said. “And we’ll win without you. And that’s where we’ve got to go.”
An 18-point Kentucky lead dwindled to 69-66. Then a game of improbable twists and turns found an unlikely hero.
Freshman Wenyen Gabriel, heretofore part of a highly questioned forward combo, hit a three-pointer from in front of the Kentucky bench to ease the tension.
Suddenly, UK shook off a string of sloppy plays and executed. As Calipari has advised, Isaiah Briscoe drove and shot high. Bam Adebayo, who was saddled with fouls all night, dunked the rebound.
On UK’s next possession, Fox threw another lob to Monk. This time, Monk made sure to keep his hands off the rim after he dunked.
Fox sealed the victory. He scored nine straight points down the stretch and led the Cats with 21. Freshmen scored 16 straight points down the stretch of a chaotic, disjointed game.
“Honestly ... teams have a go-to person,” Fox said of his clutch play. “We don’t have that right now. Whoever, I guess, has the hot hand that game is the one who does it.”
Monk added 14 points, while Derek Willis and Gabriel scored 13 each. Isaiah Briscoe had 12.
Kentucky improved to 16-2 overall and 6-0 in the Southeastern Conference.
State, which lost its 15th straight game against a ranked team, fell to 12-5 overall and 3-2 in the SEC.
Freshman Lamar Peters led State with a career-high 25 points. Quinndary Weatherspoon added 15.
Willis, who had scored only two points in each of the last two games (and reached double figures once in the last eight), came alive in the first half. His 13 points propelled Kentucky to a 46-34 halftime lead.
Willis’ scoring in the first half, which was two shy of a season-high (15 against Stephen F. Austin and Arkansas), came in handy.
Foul trouble hit UK’s front court hard. Adebayo picked up two fouls and went to the bench at the 12:47 mark. Humphries, Sacha Killeya-Jones, Gabriel and Willis all ended the first half with two fouls each. Tai Wynyard, who made his first free throw as a UK player in a closing 12-5 mini run to end the half, had one foul.
Mississippi State had its own foul problems. Weatherspoon, who leads the Bulldogs in scoring, baskets, three-pointers and free-throw attempts, picked up his second foul with 13:53 left in the half. He had two points at halftime.
On Monday, State Coach Ben Howland said Weatherspoon’s importance to his team could not be overstated.
“Especially how young we are,” Howland said. “Guys look at him and see a great competitor, and a guy helping his team win. That’s inspirational.”
Willis and Gabriel, the tandem sharing the much-discussed “four-man position,” played a big part in keeping Kentucky afloat despite Adebayo’s foul trouble.
Each made three-pointers from the top of the key off pick-and-pop plays.
But Kentucky definitely missed Adebayo. Mississippi State outscored UK in the paint 24-20.
Isaac Humphries had the first opportunity to fill the void. He missed several shots around the basket, including a dunk.
Kentucky buried State early in the second half. UK’s good news began with Weatherspoon picking up his third foul on the Cats’ first possession.
The next possession saw Gabriel hit his second three-pointer, which tied his season high. That put the Cats ahead 51-34.
Three straight State turnovers, plus put-backs by the suddenly bullish Gabriel and the always bullish Briscoe kept the lead at 17 with 16:58 left. State called time to ponder.
Gabriel continued his coming-out party. He took a charge that was Schnider Herard’s fifth foul. He grabbed an offensive rebound and passed to Humphries for a layup.
Kentucky’s lead reached its zenith at 18 points. Then came an unraveling and a resurrection.
South Carolina at No. 5 Kentucky
6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)