Date story was published: Sunday, February 16, 1986
For those who hungered for exciting basketball, Kentucky's 88-62 victory over Mississippi State last night lived down to expectations.
As expected, Kentucky moved another step closer to a 36th Southeastern Conference championship by ripping the league's last-place team in a game devoid of drama.
However, the do-everything Wildcats, who improved to 13-1 in the SEC and 22-3 overall, managed to provide the unusual, too. Who could have expected the record-setting efficiency with which the Wildcats whipped Mississippi State?
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Lexington Herald-Leader
UK hit 72.2 percent of its shots, a Rupp Arena regular-season record. The Wildcats made 39 of 54 shots to shatter a 9-year-old record held by West Virginia. WVU made 68 percent of its shots (34 of 50) in a 1977 UKIT victory over Bowling Green.
Only Villanova, which hit a NCAA Tournament record 78.6 percent (22 of 28) in last April's championship game, has shot better at Rupp.
While Kentucky's sharpshooting wasn't a school record either (76.5 percent against Notre Dame in Freedom Hall in December 1981), it did break the previous standard for a conference game. Mississippi State was also the victim of the old mark, 69.2 percent set in February 1981.
As good as UK's shooting was, it was only the most obvious sign of how well the Wildcats played.
Defensive pressure, a key for Kentucky all season, was again sharp.
UK served notice early, forcing turnovers on State's first two possessions. For the most part, State never seemed in offensive sync.
When the combination of good defense and record shooting was added to State's foul trouble, the Bulldogs were doomed to a 13th loss in 14 SEC games. MSU fell to 4-19 overall.
"I've had a few (teams shoot 70-some percent), but none played better than this team under these circumstances," Kentucky coach Eddie Sutton said. "Our staff couldn't ask for more than this team is giving us. Physically, they're in good shape. More importantly, mentally and emotionally they're in great shape.
"We're in such good shape, we'll give them tomorrow (Sunday) off."
Rob Lock, who made his first appearance this season in the post-game interview room, had the perfect reaction to the news of a day off.
"Awesome," said the reserve center.
He could have been speaking of his own performance. He had nine points, his highest total since getting 12 against Pepperdine in last December's UKIT.
"Awesome" was also the word for UK's performance.
If it had been boxing, State would have received a standing eight-count by halftime when it trailed 43-27. The second half would have been stopped.
As it was, UK recorded its most lopsided SEC victory of the season. The previous best was a 24-point victory over Alabama.
"Kentucky seemed to have a degree of intensity good teams need to have," Mississippi State coach Bob Boyd said. "I point that out because that's not always the case. It could have been less than that because of the recent win at Alabama."
UK was primed for a letdown after last Thursday's 73-71 victory at Alabama, a game that sounded a death knell for the SEC race. Auburn beat Alabama 71-69 last night to drop the Tide three games behind UK in the conference race with only four games remaining.
"Kentucky should be commended for its approach to the game," Boyd said. "Kentucky played as well as any team we've played."
Sutton agreed, saying he did not fear a letdown.
"This team has matured," the UK coach said. "I would have feared a lot a letdown three weeks ago. I told the team 'We're going to go out and hunt some people. I'm tired of being hunted.' "
Winston Bennett led the way with 21 points and seven rebounds. Seventeen of Bennett's points came in the second half when UK allowed State to get no closer than 12.
Kenny Walker, benefiting from UK's hot outside shooting, had his most active shooting night of the month. Walker's eight field goals were more than he's had since the Auburn game (Jan. 31). He had 10 in that one.
"When you shoot 72 percent, the defense has a tendency to spread a little bit," Sutton said, "and you can get the ball inside."
State's defense ripped at the seams.
Everyone could have gone home at halftime and saved the two teams from the formality of a second 20 minutes.
Ahead 43-27, Kentucky was in full control by intermission. Mississippi State appeared incapable of mounting a serious rally in the final 20 minutes.
Besides being down by 16 points, State's hopes for pulling off an upset were hampered by foul trouble. The Bulldogs' two big men inside, center Raymond Brown and freshman Anthony Blakely, both had four fouls by intermission.
Blakely picked up his fourth foul reaching over Walker for a rebound with 8:08 remaining in the first half. Brown got his fourth with 2:02 left trying to defend Walker on the low post.
"We're not very deep in that position," said Boyd when asked why he left his big men in the game after their third fouls. "I know it's unique for a player to get four fouls in a half, but we had to do it.
"When Kentucky's shooting that well and we're in foul trouble, what little chance we had was eliminated."
UK took control midway through the first half. The Wildcats' defense and hustle, which were evident from the start, played a big part in an 18-6 spurt that gave UK a 31-17 lead with 6:52 remaining.
Walker, who snapped out of his recent scoring doldrums with 12 first-half points, got the run in gear by deflecting a pass at the top of the key and roaring in for a dunk. The steal and slam put UK up 17-11 and sparked the first of two timeouts State called in an attempt to quell the breakout.
Kentucky was ahead 21-17 when the Wildcats strung together 10 straight points.
Roger Harden, who had 12 points and six assists in the half, hit a jumper from the top of the key to start the run.
Bennett blocked a Blakely inside shot at the other end. After State retrieved the ball, Blakely fouled Walker on the ensuing shot.
Walker's two free throws increased the lead to 25-17.
Blakely fouled again, his fourth foul, going for a rebound of his own miss.
Walker missed the front end of the one-and-one, but Bennett kept the rebound alive for a Blackmon jumper. The shot put the Wildcats ahead 27-17.
When Tracy Taylor, trying to relieve the defensive pressure, leaned too hard into Blackmon, he was called for an offensive foul.
State called another timeout at that point, with 7:49 remaining.
Harden promptly hit another jumper from the top of the key, increasing the lead to 29-17.
Lock's two free throws made it 31-17 before State scored on Chauncey Robinson's two free throws with 6:46 remaining. The free throws were MSU's first points since Mark Peters hit a jumper at the 10:20 mark.
State didn't get another basket until Robinson drove for a two-pointer with 5:27 remaining.
Sandwiched around Robinson's basket were two examples of why this appeared to be Kentucky's night.
With Sutton's shouts of "be patient" easy to hear, the Cats unabashedly fired away. They got two baskets: a Walker post-up and Harden's jumper.
"It was one of those plays where you shout 'No, no' and it goes in and you say 'Heck of a play,' " a smiling Sutton said. "We were playing with a lot of confidence. That's very important.
"They feel very good about themselves."