UK Men's Basketball

Kentucky averts rare three-game skid with 78-65 win against Mississippi State

According to basketball parlance, settling is bad. It’s taking the easy way out, as John Calipari likes to say, rather than taking on contact in route to a basket and/or drawing a foul.

According to the dictionary, settling is adopting a more steady or secure style of life.

In defeating Mississippi State 78-65 on Tuesday night, Kentucky also scored one for the dictionary.

Led by Kevin Knox, Kentucky shot more freely from three-point distance. The Cats didn’t bury Mississippi State in an avalanche of threes. But the five three-pointers equaled the number UK made in the last two games combined.

“I needed this game …,” said Knox, who had made only two of 14 three-point shots in the last three games. “I was a little shaky last couple games.”

Knox, who scored 13 of his 19 points in the first half, said he was not confused by Calipari’s request not to settle, which came before Monday’s request to shoot and, of course, make more threes.

“He just wants you to stay committed to the shot,” Knox said. “Sometimes I shoot my shot differently. And if I just shoot the way he wants me to shoot, keeping my head straight, holding my follow through, he sees nothing wrong with me shooting threes.”

And when the defense reacts by contesting the three-point shot, Knox said he must then counter with a shot fake and drive.

To speed up the process, Knox said he’s been regularly setting a goal of making 500 three-point shots before and after each practice.

Kentucky avoided its first three-game losing streak since Billy Gillispie’s last season as coach (2008-09). The victory was especially well-timed.

“A lot of us were down,” Knox said. “A lot of us were upset. So it was good to get back in the winning column. As freshmen, we don’t like to lose. Losing two in a row is really hard for us.”

As is typical in this season of living dangerously, the Kentucky victory was not easy.

Mississippi State, which extended its losing streak in “true” road games to 12, trailed only 55-54 with barely eight minutes left.

Then Knox hit a three-pointer with 8:14 left to ease the tension. It was his first shot of the second half and UK’s fifth three of the game. He equaled a season-high of four three-pointers.

Closing out games had been a Kentucky weakness. But the Cats got it done against Mississippi State.

“We did a really better job,” Knox said. “That’s something we were struggling with. We did a good job settling down, calling plays, getting good shots, rebounding. It was good to see us close it out.”

Said Calipari: “We made free throws. Makes a big difference.”

PJ Washington led UK with a season-high 22 points. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander added 16.

Kentucky, which fell out of The Associated Press’ top 25 poll for the first time since 2014, improved to 15-5 overall and 5-3 in the Southeastern Conference. “This is a young team,” Calipari said Monday. “Now, we’re going to find out have they grown up a little bit or where are they when the adversity hits.”

Mississippi State fell to 14-6 overall and 2-5 in the SEC. Quinndary Weatherspoon led the Bulldogs with 19 points.

Knox scored 13 points to lead Kentucky to a 38-36 lead at halftime. Seemingly freed from the obligation to drive-drive-drive and draw contact, he shot almost exclusively from outside the paint.

Knox made three three-pointers in the first half, which was one shy of a season high. His other basket was a pull-up jumper from about 15 feet.

Knox’s first two three-pointers saved UK fans from fretting about the program’s 30-year-old, 1,033-game streak of making a shot from beyond the arc. For the first time in three games, a three-point basket came before the final 10 minutes of the game.

More importantly, Knox hit back-to-back threes to awaken Kentucky from a slow start.

Mississippi State led by as much as 13-7 early. Calipari did not wait until the first television timeout to take action. He substituted Wenyen Gabriel, Jarred Vanderbilt and Quade Green at the 16:37 mark.

None impacted the turnaround. Gabriel went to the bench with two fouls at the 14:04 mark.

Vanderbilt, who made a belated debut to the season a week earlier, struggled. He missed his five shots in the first half. Several missed badly.

Knox picked up the slack. His first three-pointer, which was UK’s first, came with 13:46 left. It began an 8-0 UK ran that included his second three-pointer 38 seconds after the first.

As if to show he enjoyed firing away, Knox banked in his third three-pointer from high on the left wing. It seemed unlikely that was intentional.

A patented drive by Gilgeous-Alexander gave UK the lead for good at 24-22. The Cats twice led by as much as seven down the stretch.

Mississippi State came into the game ranked 336th in three-point shooting, and the Bulldogs made only three of 13 in the half.

Kentucky repeated the slow start of the first half to begin the second. Only maybe more so.

When Mississippi State sandwiched baskets around a UK turnover, Calipari called time 36 seconds into the second half. State led 40-38.

Neither team led in the second half by more than three points heading into the final 10 minutes. An ill-advised save by Sacha Killeya-Jones that Lamar Peters retrieved and cashed in with a fastbreak layup put State ahead 52-49 with 12:45 left.

Kentucky took a three-point lead of its own when Washington dunked a lob from Gilgeous-Alexander. That put UK ahead 55-52 and prompted a State timeout with 9:58 left.

Jerry Tipton: 859-231-3227, @JerryTipton

Next game

Kentucky at No. 7 West Virginia

7 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)

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