DULUTH, Ga. — It looked as if Kentucky's fire was extinguished.
The No. 19 Cats trailed Mississippi State by 14 points early in the second half of the Southeastern Conference semifinals on Saturday.
Kentucky looked finished.
"We looked dead in the water," UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said more aptly.
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But there were still some embers burning somewhere and UK started a small run.
Fueled by aggressive defense and even more aggressive offense, Kentucky caught fire and staged its biggest comeback of the season to top the Bulldogs 76-65 on Saturday night.
With the win, UK advances to the championship game of the SEC Tournament to face No. 4 Tennessee on Sunday. It's the first time since 1982 that Kentucky has advanced to the finals.
"I've seen it happen with our team before," Mitchell said, trying to explain the turn of events he'd just witnessed in front of 6,148 at the Gwinnett Center. "A tiny spark gets it going."
No player nor coach could explain it completely, but at some point in the second half, the flames were fanned.
"It's like a spark," junior Victoria Dunlap said. "It just keeps going and going. Everybody feeds off it. ... Everybody was getting back into it. That's just how it happened."
Maybe it was Dunlap who did it.
The SEC Player of the Year scored 10 points in the first of two 16-4 runs that got UK back within two points.
The forward scored 16 of her 22 points in the second half to boost the Cats. She also had nine rebounds, five steals and five blocked shots.
Maybe it was Freshman of the Year A'dia Mathies, who took an elbow to the jaw and had a tooth partially chipped early in the second half.
That event seemed to stoke the fire, too.
"It actually gave us momentum, knowing how the game was going to be, getting tougher," Mathies said. "It helped me go out there and help my team out, too."
Mathies, who made and attempted just one shot in the first half because of foul trouble, led all scorers with 25 points and added five rebounds.
"It's gutsy play for a freshman, a fifth-year senior, whatever you want to say," Mitchell said. "She's a very talented basketball player. There's no way I could have more confidence in A'dia Mathies."
Maybe it was Amber Smith, who fumbled her way through the first half with six turnovers and three points on just one made basket.
The junior point guard flamed out in the first half, but she responded to her coach's challenge in the second half, scoring 11 of her 14 points.
She finished with seven assists and three steals, too. In the second half, Smith had just one turnover.
"We definitely turned it up on them," she said. "We got it going."
As they've done all season, forcing turnovers and limiting their own were key for the Cats (25-6), who had just four miscues in the second half after turning it over 14 times in the first.
They forced the Bulldogs into 28 for the game, including 15 in the pivotal second half. UK scored 32 points off the Mississippi State (19-12) mistakes.
"Kentucky's pressure had a lot to do with some of those turnovers and us not being focused on where the defensive players were coming from behind," MSU Coach Sharon Fanning-Otis said.
The turnovers and UK's aggressive play helped fuel the second 16-4 run that gave Kentucky the lead for good, on a Dunlap free throw with 7:21 to play.
"It felt real good," Smith said of the run. "Just the looks on their players' faces. They didn't look real good. But we were smiling."
One of their players, Tysheka Grimes, who had 19 points to lead the Bulldogs, said it definitely didn't feel good.
"It's a heartbreaker," she said. "It's hard for me to talk about it. It's a heartbreaker."
It was a heartbreaker for one team and a boost for another that learned valuable lessons about itself before its biggest game of the season.