Date story was published: Thursday, January 17, 1985
Kentucky moved into sole possession of first place in the Southeastern Conference last night with a 58-57 victory over Mississippi State.
And as that score would indicate, first place may mean first among equals this season.
UK, which improved to 9-5 overall and 4-1 in the SEC, couldn't claim victory until the final two seconds. It was then that the Wildcats successfully inbounded the ball and a Rupp Arena crowd of 23,628 could relax.
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By virtue of Florida's 71-60 loss against Georgia last night, both the Gators and MSU fell to 3-2 in the league.
"Mississippi State's first half was much like it had been in their wins over Alabama and LSU," UK coach Joe Hall said of the Bulldogs' 71.4 percent first-half shooting. "If they had continued that, we wouldn't be smiling right now."
As with last night's victory, first place might be equally precarious, Hall added.
"We'll enjoy it while we can," the Kentucky coach said. "We'll sure have our hands full defending it."
UK certainly got all it wanted last night in beating MIssissippi State.
Despite playing witout Ken Harvey, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, MSU led throughout most of the game.
Only in the final 10 minutes, as UK's halftime defensive switch took its toll, did the Wildcats get a lead. Winston Bennett's driving layup on the fast break gave Kentucky its first lead, 40-39, with 11:30 remaining.
UK played man-to-man in the game's opening six minutes, fell behind 10-5 and switched to a 2-3 zone for the rest of the half.
In the second half, UK switched again. The Cats moved into what they call a ''point drop" defense, a 1-2-2 alignment that has a forward - last night it was Bennett or Richard Madison - at the top of the key. That man would drop back quickly to help defend the low post.
"That's what I call a three-man front and it has hurt us now against Auburn and Kentucky," MSU coach Bob Boyd said. "We had hoped to do better against it. If Tracy (Taylor) had kept shooting like he did in the first half, it wouldn't have mattered."
But Taylor, who started in Harvey's spot, didn't.
Taylor made all seven of his first-half shots, but just two of eight in the second half. He scored a game-high 18 points. The Bulldogs cooled off in the second half (35.5 percent).
Bennett, in particular, seemed to thrive in the "point drop." The sophomore forward alternated at the point and underneath in the zone. He had five of his seven steals in the second half, each coming at important times.
Early in the half, Bennett stripped MSU point guard Jeff Norwood. Harden picked up the loose ball and fed James Blackmon for a layup.
Later, when the Cats ripped off eight straight points to take a 42-39 lead, Bennett separated Chauncey Robinson from the ball on the baseline.
When the Wildcats nudged ahead 48-43, Bennett protected the lead by stripping away an MSU rebound and deflecting a feed inside to a teammate.
UK's "point drop" defense wasn't without drawbacks. It left the Cats vulnerable on the boards and MSU took advantage. Offensive rebounds led to 12 of the Bulldogs' final 16 points.
"We were fronting inside, but they weren't looking inside," Hall said.
Instead, MSU fired away from the outside and its big men had inside rebounding position.
Although Boyd cited the defense in his analysis, several of his players said the officiating was the difference.
What bothered the MSU players more than anything was a blocking call on Taylor with 18 seconds left. Taylor, who fouled out on the play, had hoped to draw a charging call against Madison on an inbounds from the sideline.
Instead, Madison swished two free throws to give UK a 58-53 lead.
"I couldn't believe it," Taylor said. "I felt I was in pretty good position. But I feel we got those kind of calls all night long."
UK had seven fewer field goals that State, but made up the difference by making 20 of 26 free throws. The Bulldogs were five of seven from the line.
"They really got a gift," Harvey said. "Free throw shooting was the difference."
Two Roger Harden free throws finally gave UK the lead for good with 4:02 remaining. Those shots gave UK a 50-49 lead.
Two more free throws by Harden (with 55 seconds remaining) and two by Madison (with 18 seconds to go) increased the Wildcats' edge to a seemingly safe 58-53.
But Jeff Norwood hit a jumper with 13 seconds to go. After James Blackmon missed the front end of a one-and-one, the Bulldogs closed to within 58-57 on Tony Robinson's tip-in with threee seconds remaining.
After a MSU timeout, Bennett was able to inbounds the ball to Madison, who cradled first place protectively until the buzzer sounded.
The loss, a bitter one for MSU, dropped the Bulldogs to 7-7 overall. The game's bearing on the SEC race, however, was what hurt the MSU players.
"We wanted to win this game badly," said guard Tracy Taylor, who led all scorers with 18 points. "It was important because we're always the underdog from the beginning. It was a three-way tie and we could have been in first all alone. Everybody feels we're not supposed to be there. That's why we wanted it."
A banner in recognition of UK's Final Four appearance last season was raised before the game. But it was Mississippi State that enjoyed a banner first half.
For UK, the first 20 minutes were a constant uphill fight against a patient, good-shooting opponent.
Mississippi State scored the game's first two baskets and never trailed.
The best UK could manage was three ties, the last coming at 22-22.
From there, the Bulldogs outscored Kentucky 9-4 to take a 31-26 halftime lead.
As advertised, MSU was a good shooting team. The Bulldogs peppered UK's 2-3 zone with perimeter jumpers.
The hottest Bulldog, however, was a surprise. Taylor, who started in place of the injured Ken Harvey, made all seven of his field-goal attempts. Taylor entered the game as a 43.4 percent shooter. His hot shooting, which accounted for 14 points, made the absence of Harvey less troublesome for MSU. Harvey had been the Bulldogs leading scorer (13.5) and rebounder (5.2) this season.
Taylor's two jump shots contributed to a quick 8-1 lead for Mississippi State.
UK battled back with Kenny Walker and Ed Davender leading the way. Walker and Davender scored UK's first 11 points and finished the half with a combined 18 points.
Davender entered the game with 16:31 remaining and UK down 8-1. He made an immediate contribution, taking a fast-break pass from Harden for a layup.
Later in the half, with UK trailing 16-13, Davender went on a solo fastbreak. The freshman guard stole the ball from Chauncey Robinson in the low post and dribbled the length of the court. At the other end, Davender shielded the ball from MSU center Raymond Brown and laid it in while being fouled. The three-point play tied the score at 16-16 with 7:43 remaining.
Mississippi State, which made 71.4 percent of its first-half shots, immediately took back the lead as Robinson hit an 18-footer.
Then, Taylor hit two more bombs.
Walker, who finished the half with 11 points and led UK with 15 for the game, was the only UK starter to score in the first half.
The junior forward had two dunks among his four baskets. But UK shot only 45.5 percent for the half.
The Cats did get a lift from Troy McKinley off the bench. McKinley, Kentucky's designated zone buster, hit all three of his jumpers.