STARKVILLE, Miss. — No. 18 Kentucky topped Mississippi State 69-59 on Saturday at Humphrey Coliseum, but that was almost beside the point to Wildcats coach John Calipari.
The young Wildcats (18-5, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) seem to be squarely in the NCAA tournament field, so with about a month until Selection Sunday, Calipari doesn’t care much if the Wildcats win without growing in the process.
“I don’t think our guys grew in this game,” Calipari said. “I mean, I just thought they played the same way throughout, and because we had enough of a depth we could still win the game. That’s what it was.”
The Bulldogs were playing without starting guard I.J. Ready, who had the flu, and were down to seven scholarship players. It would have been an easy game for the Wildcats to overpower a smaller, depleted Mississippi State team, but that did not happen.
The Bulldogs (13-10, 3-7) missed their first six shots from the field, not hitting from the floor until forward Colin Borchert scored on a tip-in nearly five minutes into the first half.
But once Mississippi State heated up, the Wildcats went cold. Mississippi State, down 9-3 at one point, took a lead as large as four points at 17-13 with less than 10 minutes to go in the first half. Over that span, Kentucky was 2 of 7 from the floor and committed two turnovers.
Kentucky turned to its bench in the first half to a pair of seniors — guard Jarrod Polson and seldom-used forward Jon Hood — to boost the Wildcats’ lacking energy, and it worked.
Hood had three points and two rebounds in 10 first half minutes; his previous season high for minutes played was six, which he played in the first two games of the season, both blowout wins for Kentucky.
“You go in and you play hard and you bring enthusiasm,” Hood said on his goal Saturday. “That’s what you’re supposed to do as a guy coming off the bench. You’re supposed to give a lift and enthusiasm and energy and hustle plays. That’s what the guys off the bench did today.”
The Wildcats seemed to be wearing down Mississippi State at the end of the first half, but after the halftime break, the Bulldogs came back out energized. Kentucky coach John Calipari turned back to his bench, throwing fresh legs at Mississippi State.
Still, the Bulldogs — already much smaller — stayed in the game because of their hustle. They prevented the Wildcats from grabbing a single offensive rebound in the first eight minutes of the second half.
Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said his team needed to play hard not only because of its short-handedness, but because of how poorly it played in its last outing, a 72-52 loss to Texas A&M on Wednesday.
“Hopefully no matter who the opponent was, we’d come out and play this way,” Ray said. “We had a couple tough days.”
With the Wildcats holding on to a 59-50 lead, point guard Andrew Harrison fouled out with 5:31 to play. But Polson, who had already seen considerable playing time earlier in the game, steadied the Wildcats at the point.
Still, Kentucky wasn’t supposed to go to such great lengths to beat a team with seven scholarship players that it had beaten 85-63 on Jan. 8. For Calipari, it wasn’t great. But Hood said the Wildcats can’t be too upset.
“Any place you play on the road in the SEC is always a good win if you can come out with one no matter how you get it,” Hood said. “You can play bad and it’s still a win.”
NOTES: Kentucky has won seven straight against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs’ last win over Kentucky was a 66-57 win at Rupp Arena on Feb. 3, 2009. … Kentucky, which had shot more free throws than its opponent in 17 of its first 22 games, only had six free-throw attempts at halftime. The Wildcats finished with 18, tied for their second-lowest output of the season. … Mississippi State has lost four games in a row for the first time this season.
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