Maybe not with such wild swings of momentum, but Kentucky Coach John Calipari expected a challenge at Mississippi State on Saturday afternoon.
That’s why he took an usual, if not unprecedented step in preparing his team at dawn.
“We came over at 7:30, and we did a shootaround,” Calipari said. “I never do that. I knew how tough this game was going to be. We may have run out of gas because I did that.”
Calipari cited the reason he broke from custom. “We had two other games at noon,” he said of matchups with Seton Hall and Alabama. “We lost both.”
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UK defeated Mississippi State 71-67, but it took resilience, resolve and how Hemingway defined courage: grace under pressure.
An 18-point second-half lead dwindled to a single point. A boisterous crowd in Humphrey Coliseum pleaded for the Bulldogs to complete the comeback. PJ Washington, the main man in the ensemble act that is this deep and talented Kentucky team, battled foul trouble and picked up his fifth with 1:47 left.
Hagans’ free throw with 8.9 seconds left clinched what seemed for a while to be a relatively easy victory. UK improved to 20-3 overall and 9-1 in the Southeastern Conference.
“We held onto the rope, but our hands are bleeding,” Calipari said of the competitive spirit required to win the game. “Let me tell you, we just held on.”
Washington led UK with 23 points, the fifth time in the last six games he has scored 20 or more. Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro added 13 and 12 points, respectively.
Mississippi State fell to 16-7 overall and 4-6 in the SEC. Lamar Peters led the Bulldogs with 16 points. Quinndary Weatherspoon added 14.
Kentucky dominated the first half and led 40-25 at the break. That matched the Bulldogs’ largest halftime deficit of the season (39-24 against Arizona State on Nov. 19).
Kentucky’s second-largest halftime lead since November (topped only by the 45-15 debacle at Vanderbilt two weeks earlier) was the product of offensive and defensive superiority. This was reflected in UK outscoring Mississippi State 25-8 over the final 9:42.
“The first half won us the game,” Calipari said. But at halftime, he did not want his players taking bows.
“I said, ‘They got two runs in them,’” Calipari said he told the players. “‘So they’re going to come after us twice. You’ve got to withstand their two runs.”
The Bulldogs’ leading scorer — and the SEC’s fourth-leading scorer in league play — Weatherspoon was oddly invisible in the first half. He took only one shot (with 8:24 to go) and went scoreless.
“He’s got to get more than one shot for us to be successful,” Bulldogs Coach Ben Howland said. “No question.”
Already disgruntled State fans felt further aggrieved when Washington and Reggie Perry exchanged seemingly strategic elbows with 33.2 seconds left in the first half. Having grabbed a defensive rebound, Perry tried to fend Washington off his back with an elbow to the upper arm.
Washington returned the message by reaching out and placing a forearm on the back of Perry’s head.
Fans howled when they saw repeated replays on the video screens hanging over center court. The decision for offsetting technical fouls on both players caused more booing.
The technical saddled Perry with a third foul. He had been the Bulldogs’ hottest player, having scored 10-plus points in four straight games and posted three double-doubles in that span. Perry supplanted Kentuckian Aric Holman as a starter earlier this month.
UK’s lead reached its zenith at 49-31 on a Washington three-pointer with 16:32 left.
Weatherspoon finally scored with 18:15 left in the second half. He hit a three-pointer, one of two Mississippi State made inside the first two minutes after halftime. “Q,” as the Bulldogs’ top player is known, scored eight points in a 19-2 run. His two free throws reduced UK’s lead to 51-50 with 8:41 left.
Kentucky sought — and got — relief by going to Washington in the low post. His basket — UK’s first in more than four minutes, and second in more than eight — eased the tension. Weatherspoon hoped to draw a charging foul by going down as Washington made his move. The referee standing at the baseline shook his head from side to side.
But Mississippi State refused to go quietly. A three-pointer by Lamar Peters made it 65-61 with 3:29 left.
Then Herro hit a three-pointer off a loose ball in front of the UK bench with 2:58 left.
“How about that shot?” Calipari said. “… That was a dagger.”
“It was a huge shot …,” the Bulldogs’ coach said. “That was really a good defensive possession for us.”
No. 21 LSU at No. 5 Kentucky
7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)