Mississippi State achieved perfection on Sunday in Memorial Coliseum.
The Bulldogs finished the regular season with 30 wins, zero losses and a perfect 16-0 Southeastern Conference record. They were the first team from this league to go an entire season without a blemish in 20 years.
But even after the 85-63 victory over Kentucky to seal the deal, star junior Teaira McCowan downplayed it a bit.
“Nothing’s perfect, but we’re doing good, I guess,” smiled McCowan, who was a dominant force inside against the Cats, finishing the afternoon with 20 points and a career-high tying 20 rebounds.
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The 6-foot-7 junior center might not have been perfect, but she allowed her teammates to make some mistakes early and keep their confidence on both ends of the floor, Coach Vic Schaefer said.
She “really carried us early and allowed us to play well,” he said of McCowan, who also added five blocked shots in the win. “Whether we were making shots or missing shots, she was involved in a lot. Then she came down on defense and was involved in a lot.”
McCowan was pivotal during a big swing in the game when the Bulldogs turned a two-point deficit into a 19-5 run in the second quarter that ultimately put the game out of reach.
The Cats (14-16, 6-10) hit three straight three-pointers to get within nine, 40-31, after that initial surge, but then the Bulldogs extended their lead to 15 points, 46-31, at the break.
McCowan had 17 points and 13 rebounds, including eight on the offensive end, in the first half alone.
“They’ve got a hunger and a real desire to continue on this special trip we’re on,” Shaefer said of Mississippi State, which outrebounded Kentucky 40-23 and scored 20 points on second-chance points to just six for UK.
McCowan was huge, but she had a lot of help. Star senior Victoria Vivians added 18 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Roshunda Johnson had 15 points for State, which made 52.2 percent of its shots.
Blair Schaefer made four three-pointers to finish with 12 points for the Bulldogs, who made 10 from long range in the win, Mississippi State’s first in Lexington since 2009.
There’s a saying in the MSU locker room: “It’s not what we do, but how we do it that separates us from the rest of the country,” Schaefer said.
“It’s where this group is,” the coach continued. “They’ve really gone about their business. They understand chemistry. We certainly have great chemistry. It’s what makes them special.”
To go an entire season without tripping, especially in the SEC is rare and impressive, UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said
“That’s really hard to do. You don’t see it much,” said Mitchell, who has two members of his staff, Niya Butts and Kyra Elzy, who were on the Tennessee team that did it most recently in 1998. “There are some good teams in our league, but (Mississippi State is) the class of the league this year.”
After facing the Bulldogs twice in as many weeks, Kentucky could face them again as early as Friday in the SEC Tournament.
Mississippi State earned the top seed and will take on the winner of Thursday’s game between No. 9 seed UK and No. 8 seed Alabama.
The Cats and Crimson Tide will meet in the second round of the conference tournament in Nashville on Thursday. Kentucky won the regular-season meeting between the two teams 79-54 on Jan. 25.
“Tough day for us, but we just have to move forward and try to get ready for the postseason,” Mitchell said.
Maci Morris led Kentucky with 22 points, her sixth straight game to score 20 points or more. The junior guard is the only player in the league to do that this season.
Dorie Harrison added 13 points in the loss. Amanda Paschal pitched in with 11 points for the Cats, who connected on 42.3 percent of their shots.
This was the first regular-season losing record for Kentucky in the Matthew Mitchell era. The loss snapped a string of eight straight victories on senior days for Kentucky.
The Cats honored senior forward Alyssa Rice and guard Jessica Hardin before the game in front of 6,014 in Memorial Coliseum.
“Our team battled today,” Mitchell said. “We just didn’t have much of an answer for McCowan in the first half. … They were hard to guard today.”
Kentucky vs. Alabama
What: Southeastern Conference Tournament
Where: Bridgestone Arena in Nashville
When: 1 p.m. Thursday
TV: SEC Network