Date story published: Wednesday, January 16, 2008
STARKVILLE, Miss. --Kentucky executed. But Mississippi State center Jarvis Varnado played the executioner.
Varnado's triple-double, the third in the program's history, propelled State to a 69-64 victory over UK Tuesday night.
Kentucky, which slipped to 7-8 overall and 1-1 in the Southeastern Conference, rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit by showing the kind of never-say-die spirit first-year coach Billy Gillispie prizes.
The Cats clawed within two points in the final seconds. But the combination of Varnado around the basket and scoring by Cat killer Jamont Gordon proved too much to overcome.
Varnado, a 6-foot-9 sophomore from Brownsville, Tenn., showed why he leads the nation in blocked shots. The player nicknamed "Swat" blocked 10 shots to go with 10 points and 12 rebounds. The blocks were the most by a UK opponent since Louisville's Samaki Walker rejected 11 on Jan. 1, 1995. The triple-double was the first posted against Kentucky since Marquette's Dwyane Wade had 29 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in the 2003 NCAA Tournament.
Ramel Bradley, whose 22 points made him the first UK player since Jamal Mashburn to notch five straight games with 20 or more, noted a lead-with-your-chin game plan. "We wanted to continue to attack," he said. "If he blocked a shot, make him block it three times."
Varnado, who blocked 10 shots for a third time this season, obliged UK.
"We knew he'd block shots," said Joe Crawford, who chipped in with 20 points. "We didn't know it'd be 10."
Gordon, who came into the game averaging 18 points in three career games against UK, led State with 24 points. Again, UK more or less got what it wanted. The Cats kept Gordon on the perimeter. But Gordon, who had shot with 29.3-percent accuracy from beyond the arc this season, tied a career high with five three-pointers. More than once, Gordon blunted second-half Kentucky rallies with clutch shots.
"He just had the confidence," said Crawford, who made Gordon work for his points. "He was in the moment."
A seventh straight victory improved State to 12-5 overall and 3-0 in the SEC. That marked the program's first 3-0 league start since 1993-94.
Kentucky trailed much of the first half and probably felt relieved to only be down 32-27 at intermission.
Two predictable factors -- blocked shots and Gordon's scoring -- kept Mississippi State ahead. That combination pushed the first-half lead to its zenith: 30-20 with 2:23 left.
In a span of barely more than two minutes, State blocked four shots. Gordon converted one for a three-pointer, part of his 12-point half. Then he fed freshman Phil Turner for a three-pointer that gave State its 10-point lead.
State finished with 15 blocks, the most against Kentucky since Walker-led Louisville snuffed 17 on Jan. 4, 1995.
Kentucky took it strong at State throughout the half. The results were mixed. The Cats had two charges (fans may recall that Gillispie noted on Monday that he'd welcome 15 charges because it meant an attacking mentality). State blocked eight of the first-half shots, and not all of those attempts were around the basket. At least three of the blocks came when UK players faced up and shot. Crawford and Bradley had three-point attempts rejected.
"I knew they were going to come right at me and try to get me in foul trouble," said Varnado, who came into the game averaging 5.19 blocks per game. "I tried to go straight up and not foul. We're playing terrific defense right now."
Patrick Patterson made only one first-half shot. His other three attempts were blocked. The freshman knew he'd be the focus of State's defense. The first time he touched the ball, Patterson was tied up. He didn't have a rebound in 16 minutes and finished with 10 points and three rebounds.
State extended its lead to as much as 45-33 with 14:57 left.
Missed free throws (State made only three of its first 12 attempts) helped Kentucky rally.
Twice UK closed within six. Twice Gordon answered. After a Patterson dunk closed the deficit to 46-40, Gordon swished a three-pointer from the top of the key. After a Crawford drive made it 51-45, Gordon hit a driving shot while being fouled by Perry Stevenson. The three-point play put State ahead 54-45 with 8:17 left.
Two more driving layups by Kentucky prompted a State timeout with 6:45 left. The Cats' deficit was 54-49.
Kentucky kept closing as State floundered, especially at the foul line.
A Crawford three-pointer brought Kentucky within 66-64 with 7.6 seconds left. But Barry Stewart made three of four free throws to seal the victory.