Sidelines with John Clay

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s win at Mississippi State

In addition to my column, three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s 71-67 win at Mississippi State on Saturday:

1. ‘Hands are bleeding,’ but a win is a win

After the game, UK Coach John Calipari said his team “held on to the rope but our hands are bleeding. We just barely held on.” And that’s true. Up 49-31 with 16:31 left, the Cats saw the host Bulldogs chop that lead all the way down to a single point at 51-50 when Quinndary Weatherspoon hit two free throws at the 8:41 mark.

And yet Calipari’s young Cats held on for the big win. Credit big plays and big shots, especially over the game’s final five minutes. After State cut the lead to one, UK’s PJ Washington scored on an inside basket, then point guard Ashton Hagans finished on a drive to the basket. Next possessions, Hagans was fouled while attempting a three-point shot. He hit two of the three free throws to give UK a 57-50 advantage with 7:06 left.

The home team got back within four points at 65-61 on a Lamar Peters’ three-pointer with 3:29 left. But then came probably the biggest shot of the game. As Kentucky failed to work for a good shot with the clock shot running down, finally Tyler Herro rose and hit a three-pointer from he left wing with he shot clock buzzer heading toward zero. That made it 68-61 Kentucky with 2:58 remaining.

“That was a huge shot,” said Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland.

It was also pretty much the ball game. Washington scored inside to make it 70-64 with 1:29 left. Weatherspoon converted an old-fashioned three-point play with 1:17 left for the Bulldogs. But on their next possession, Weatherspoon stumbled into a tough shot/loose ball that UK grabbed and ran out the clock.

Yes, Kentucky nearly lost an 18-point lead, but it also made the plays it needed to make to get another SEC road win.

2. Kentucky’s second-half defense wasn’t as sharp

Coming into Saturday, UK had held each of its last five opponents under 40 percent shooting — Mississippi State 31.1 percent; Kansas 36.5 percent; Vanderbilt 37 percent; Florida 34.9 percent and South Carolina 35.8 percent. State broke the streak. The Bulldogs shot 43.4 percent for the game, including 48 percent the first half.

The Bulldogs shot 40 percent in the second half when they outscored UK 42-31. They did so on the strength of three-point shooting. After going 3-for-20 from three in its 76-55 loss at Kentucky on Jan. 22, State missed all four of its three-point attempts in the first half on Saturday. The second half, however, Howland’s club was seven of 12 from the three-point stripe.

After taking just one shot in the first half, Weatherspoon was three of five from the three-point line in the second half. Failing to score in the first half, he finished with 14 points in the second. First half, State’s leading scorer at 18 points per game, seemed to drift on the perimeter. In the second half, he looked for his shot and played more like the guard who could be a first-team All-SEC selection.

To be sure, the numbers say State is a good offensive team. MSU entered Saturday ranked 20th in adjusted offensive efficiency by Ken Pomeroy. That the Bulldogs were able to score 42 points in the second half may have had more to do with MSU’s offensive skill than lapses by the Kentucky defense.

Afterward, Howland lamented the hole his team dug in the first half — down 40-25 at the half — while Calipari said, “We won the game in the first half.”

3. Next week should be a tough but fun week, plus Reid Travis

No. 21-ranked LSU comes to Rupp Arena on Tuesday night for a 7 p.m. game on ESPN. Then on Saturday, No. 1-ranked Tennessee visits for an 8 p.m. game on ESPN. College GameDay will also be in town Saturday, though this time the World Wide Leader is going to hold its Saturday morning show in Memorial Coliseum.

As I wrote in my column, Calipari doesn’t believe his team is playing its best. And though the coach certainly has his eye on March, he might also be peeking ahead to the next two games, as well.

Thanks to its 83-78 win over Auburn on Saturday, LSU is now 19-4 overall and 9-1 in the SEC. The Tigers have a terrific sophomore point guard in Tremont Waters and a 6-foot-10 freshman who is hard to handle in Naz Reid. Will Wade is making waves in Baton Rouge.

Tennessee is a machine. As I type this, the Vols are rolling over visiting Florida at Thompson-Boling Arena. The victory would push Rick Barnes’ club to 22-1 overall and 10-0 in the SEC. Next Saturday figures to be the best Kentucky-Tennessee basketball game in a long, long time.

Before we go, however, let’s say something about UK’s Reid Travis.

At Rupp Arena, for the last two years, all the media seats are upstairs in the balcony above the lower level and in front of the top level. It gives you a good view of the overall floor and how plays, etc., develop. But at Mississippi State on Saturday, our media seats were down on the floor, behind the baseline on the end of the floor that featured the Kentucky bench.

That proximity to the floor gives you more of an idea of just what Travis does. Yes, he only had eight points and eight rebounds Saturday. But the grad student fights for rebounds, sets solid screens and does more of the little things that help a team win.

“To me, he’s a major factor,” said Mississippi State’s Howland.

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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