Kentucky got the victory it needed Tuesday night by outlasting Mississippi State 85-79. But Kentucky being Kentucky, it was more whitewater rapids ride than pleasure cruise.
"Either we're helping teams play well or they know we're playing us and coming after us," UK Coach John Calipari said of this latest adventure.
Even with veteran help for the freshman stars coming from Darius Miller off the bench and starter Josh Harrellson, Kentucky saw a 13-point lead inside the final four minutes become a four-point margin with 40 seconds left.
UK made two of a possible eight free throws in the final 65 seconds to heighten the unwanted drama. Terrence Jones and Brandon Knight missed the front end of one-and-ones in the final 65 seconds to thicken the plot.
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But Jones and Doron Lamb each made one of two free throws inside the final 33.7 seconds to help UK limp to the finish line.
Kentucky, which had lost three of its past four games, improved to 18-7 overall and 6-5 in the Southeastern Conference. Mississippi State fell to 13-12 overall and 5-6 in the SEC.
Miller, who hadn't scored double-digit points in four straight games, got 13. That included three three-pointers, the most he'd hit since getting three at North Carolina on Dec. 4.
Knight led UK with 24 points, the most he'd scored against an SEC team. Lamb added 20 and Jones 17.
Ravern Johnson led Mississippi State with 21 points. Freshman Jalen Steele added 17, Dee Bost 16 and Kodi Augustus 10.
After a highly entertaining first half, Kentucky trailed 40-39.
That had to feel like a victory because the Cats missed eight of their first nine three-point shots and trailed by as many as 11.
Kentucky knew almost immediately it might be difficult. Thirty-three seconds into the game UK called time to ponder a 5-0 deficit.
"I could see," Calipari said. "Walking up. Jogging up. ... We were down 5-0 within a blink of an eye. And it didn't really get better for a while."
A three-point play by Renardo Sidney gave State its largest lead, 24-13, with 10:39 left in the half.
Miller, who did not start for the first time since Senior Day last season, helped get Kentucky started. He hit a pair of three-pointers to begin a rally.
UK got as close as one point before State appeared headed for a halftime cushion.
Two Johnson free throws put the Bulldogs ahead 40-35 with 4.2 seconds left.
Then things got crazy, as they did in each of the two Kentucky-Mississippi State games last season. With only four team fouls, State sent Brian Bryant in the game to foul quasi-intentionally to disrupt UK's efforts for a last-second score.
"I told Brandon to shoot the ball, they're going to foul you," Calipari said. "He didn't shoot the first one. 'Do you understand what I'm telling you to do?'"
On Bryant's second foul, Knight heaved a quasi-shot attempt from half court.
"They almost didn't call it," Calipari said of the referees conferring before ruling it a shooting foul.
State Coach Rick Stansbury, who last season suggested the SEC favored Kentucky and drew a $30,000 fine from the league, recoiled in disbelief and then directed comments at the officials. Referee Jamie Luckie called a technical foul on Stansbury, which was the first for the State coach this season.
"I didn't help our team any with that last three seconds," Stansbury said. "Don't ask me any questions."
When asked what he thought of a shooting foul from the half-court area, Stansbury said, "You know what I think. Print what I think without me saying it."
Knight made four of five free throws (two of three on the shot and both technical foul shots) with 1.1 seconds left to set the halftime score.
Kentucky, which was 0-4 when trailing at halftime in earlier SEC games, took its first lead of the game 32 seconds into the second half. Harrellson's putback on a third-chance opportunity put the Cats ahead 41-40.
Although State hung tough with three-pointers, a momentum shift seemingly served as an omen that this was Kentucky's night. State had closed within 65-63 when Knight hit a pull-up jumper.
State seemed to counter when Bost drove unmolested to the basket, but his finger roll came up short. Kentucky capitalized with a Harrellson dunk on the fast break. That made it 69-63 and prompted a State timeout with 7:07 left.
It didn't help. Kentucky posted its first double-digit lead, 77-67, with 5:08 left. The lead stood at 83-70 with 3:39 left.
Then UK began missing free throws and turning the ball over in a replay of what's become a familiar stumble down the stretch. Only this time, the Cats held on.