Before playing at Mississippi State on Saturday, Ashton Hagans said it would not be difficult for streaking Kentucky to meet Coach John Calipari’s request to stay humble and hungry.
“Nah, not at all,” he said. “Because at the beginning of the season, everybody thought we weren’t going to be this team. Some people jumped off the bandwagon. Now, they’re going to try to get back on. All we’ve got to do is just stay together as a team, and listen to what the coaches have going on for us.”
Then the game gave Kentucky reason to keep its now 10-game winning streak in perspective.
After an 18-point second-half lead dwindled to a single point, Kentucky rallied to defeat Mississippi State 71-67.
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UK’s hottest player in the current hot streak, PJ Washington loomed large. But he fouled out with 1:47 left and UK ahead 70-67.
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.
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 State with 16 points. Quinndary Weatherspoon added 14.
Kentucky dominated the first half and led 40-25 at halftime. That matched State’s 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 State 25-8 over the final 9:42.
In that run, Hagans had his customary steal and feed ahead for a transition basket. Plus, Reid Travis and Hagans twice combined for layups off pick-and-roll action.
UK outrebounded State 17-10. UK had 10 assists and three turnovers. State had two assists and six turnovers.
State’e leading scorer — and the SEC’s fourth-leading scorer in league play — Quinndary Weatherspoon was oddly invisible in the first half. He took only one shot (with 8:24 to go) and went scoreless.
Already disgruntled State fans felt further aggrieved when Washington and Reggie Perry exchanged seemingly strategic elbows with 33.2 seconds left. 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 State’s hottest player, having scored 10-plus points in four straight games and posted three double-doubles in that span.
“He’s been a real presence for us inside scoring around the basket, getting second shots,” State Coach Ben Howland said of Perry earlier this season.
Weatherspoon finally scored with 18:15 left in the second half. He hit a three-pointer, one of two State made inside the first two minutes after halftime.
This came after State had missed all four of its three-point shots in the first half. Counting the teams’ first game, that made State three for 24 from beyond the arc in its first 60 minutes against Kentucky.
UK’s lead grew to 49-31 on a Washington three-pointer with 16:32 left.
But when Weatherspoon belatedly found his shooting touch, UK’s basketball walk in the park changed dramatically.
“Q,” as State’s 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.
That basket began a 12-3 counter punch by Kentucky that established a double-digit lead (63-53) going into the final five minutes.
But State refused to go quietly. A three-pointer by Peters made it 65-61 with 3:29 left.
UK went to Johnson and Washington to stay ahead. The pair scored eight straight UK points (and 10 of 14) down the stretch.