Date story was published: Thursday, January 12, 1984
For a half, and more, we were witnessing perhaps the greatest upset in the history of the world since The Duchy Of Grand Fenwick won a war against the United States in the Peter Sellers' comedy "The Mouse That Roared."
But few fans were laughing last night when Mouseissippi State roared off the court holding a 22-21 halftime lead at Rupp Arena.
Lips remained as tight as the score five minutes past intermission, and midway through the final frame, Kentucky fans were still grimacing and bearing it. With less that six minutes remaining, UK was walking a five-point tightrope with nary a net in sight.
Finally, with just over three minutes on a clock cursed with the slowest hands in the east, and the Cats savoring an eight-point advantage that must have seemed like a hundred, the crowd broke into its first collective sigh of the evening.
Kentucky, opting for its blue and white instead of camouflage, had survived the survivalist's game.
And it was a game.
No mere replay of the Cincinnati farce, this.
"We had a game," assessed Mississippi State Coach Bob Boyd, a master of understatement and over-achieving. The Bulldogs, mere pups in this jungle of a league labeled the Southeastern Conference, showed admirable patience in an offense that places a premium on poise.
It was your basic Cat and Mouse game from the opening tip to virtually the final horn, a thinking man's game in which the words "players" and "pawns" could be used interchangeably.
The Bulldogs opened in a zone, but, surprisingly, so did the Wildcats. The tempo, then, seemed to favor Mississippi State, but Boyd apparently agreed with Joe Hall's strategy.
"I wasn't surprised when Kentucky came out in a zone," said Boyd. "The thinking seems to be to zone Mississippi State because we don't have the great outside shooters. Frankly, we prefer to go against a man-to-man defense because that allows us to get the ball closer to the basket."
The Bulldogs had outscored Kentucky 8-3 over the last 6:44 of the first half to enjoy a 22-21 lead at the break, but the Cats shifted from a 1-3-1 to a 21-2 in the second half, and the different look shook some of the visitors.
"We always practice against a two-man front in practice," noted Boyd, ''and I was surprised we didn't execute as well as we did against the 13-1."
Senior guard Butch Pierre, who earned the oak leaf clusters to his Maturity Medal last night, said the first five minutes of the second half were critical to his team's performance.
"At the half, we talked about controlling the tempo at the beginning of the second half so we could control the crowd. But it got away from us, I'm afraid. Kentucky came out and applied some extra pressure, and that seemed to shake some of our players. And then the crowd got into the game."
It was a game in which each mistake is magnified, and every point leaps out from the scoreboards.
"It can be mentally draining," agreed Pierre, who committed just two turnovers in 38 minutes on the floor, "but we were mentally prepared for Kentucky. I thought we had a good game plan. Take the early shot if it's there, otherwise wait until the 45-second clock was winding down. We wanted to take time off the clock."