Three takeaways from Kentucky’s 78-65 win over Mississippi State on Tuesday night:
1. Better execution down the stretch snaps two-game losing streak
It’s not rocket science, people. At South Carolina last week, Kentucky blew a 14-point second half lead and lost 76-68 to the Gamecocks. At Rupp Arena on Saturday night, Kentucky was outscored 13-8 over the final five minutes and lost 66-64 to the Florida Gators.
On Tuesday night, up just a point, 55-54, with less than nine minutes to go, John Calipari’s young Cats did what they had to do at crunch time. They executed. They made free throws. They outscored the visiting Bulldogs 23-11 to snap that brief losing skid and improve to 15-5 this season and 5-3 in the SEC.
Over the final 8:15, Kentucky scored on 12 of its final 15 possessions. When a four-point Mississippi State play — a three-pointer from Tyson Carter while being fouled by UK’s Quade Green, followed by a made free throw — cut the UK lead to 68-63 with 3:14 left, the home team scored on its final six possessions.
Kevin Knox was fouled after getting a key offensive rebound, then he made one of two free throws. P.J. Washington scored on a drive. Washington then made one of two free throws. Wenyen Gabriel used a second and a third effort to score a rebound basket. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made two free throws. Then, with 37 seconds left, Green made pair of foul shots to finish off the Bulldogs.
“We ground it out,” Calipari said.
2. Welcome back, offense
After failing to average a point per possession the previous two games — 0.894 in the loss to South Carolina; 0.905 in the loss to Florida — Kentucky averaged 1.110 points per possession in the win over Mississippi State. That’s not great, but it's an improvement.
After making just two of 14 three-point shots over the previous three games, Kevin Knox went a perfect 4 for 4 from beyond the arc on the way to a 19-point game. Knox even banked in a three in the first half.
“That was fortuitous,” Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland said afterward. “I’m sure he didn’t intend to do that.”
Knox said he has been trying to get up at least 500 shots a day in practice to improve his shooting, and it showed.
Then there was PJ Washington, who after scoring all of six points in the loss to Florida scored a career-high 22 points on 6-for-10 shooting against MSU. Washington got to the foul line, taking a career-high 14 free throws, making 10.
“PJ is a really good player,” Howland said. “You know he’s strong, he’s physical and he’s patient. He uses a lot of shot fakes, lift fakes to get us up in the air. He’s just a very, very good player who has great hands and great feel for the game with using his body to create shots around the basket.”
3. Now it’s country roads on the way to Press Virginia
It’s the SEC/Big 12 Challenge on Saturday. Calipari meets up again with his old friend Bob Huggins when the Cats play West Virginia in Morgantown at 7 p.m. on ESPN.
That’s the same West Virginia that lost at TCU 82-73 on Monday night. In fact, after a 15-1 start that saw the Mountaineers climb all the way to No. 2 in the AP rankings, WVU has lost three of its last four, falling at Texas Tech 72-71, losing at home to Kansas 71-66, whipping Texas 86-51, then losing to the Horned Frogs.
In other words, friendships aside, Huggins and his team will not be in a charitable mood when the Cats roll into town. You know that Morgantown will be pumped for a Kentucky visit. And the Mountaineers could use a marquee win, even if the Cats have fallen out of the Top 25.
Never mind winning. Can Kentucky be competitive Saturday? The Cats showed some signs of progress Tuesday. There was Knox’s perimeter shooting and Washington’s all-around game. Jarred Vanderbilt grabbed seven rebounds in 11 minutes. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander not only scored 16 points, he contributed six assists without a single turnover.
There were some rough spots. Nick Richards played all of 11 minutes thanks to zero points and one rebound. Hamidou Diallo scored just six points. Since his return from a back strain, Green is one of 10 from the floor and 0 for 5 from three. Vanderbilt made one of seven shots.
With 12:45 to go, Mississippi State led 52-49 before UK finally got its act together. A win is a win is a win, however. Much better to be back on the road with a win than carrying the baggage of a three-game losing streak.
Kentucky men’s basketball 2017-18
vs. Kansas (Chicago)
vs. Monmouth (New York)
vs. UCLA (New Orleans)