This was going to be the moment for Mississippi State. This was going to be where they turned it all around.
The Bulldogs were heading into Tuesday night’s game with Kentucky on a three-game losing streak. Those three losses? To LSU, Georgia and Auburn. Not exactly a murderer’s row and a far cry from what any team wants to be doing as the calender quickly works its way to March.
But thanks to a dominating first half performance from Dee Bost and a physicality that Kentucky couldn’t matchup, the Bulldogs opened up a 41-28 halftime lead on the nation’s No. 1 team.
All of a sudden, Starkville, MS, became the center of the college basketball universe. All eyes turned toward ESPN to see if the enigmatic Bulldogs could pull off a season-defining win and, perhaps, turn around what can only be described as a disappointing season. Instead, what we all saw was yet another example of just how good Kentucky can be.
The Wildcats absolutely clamped down defensively in the second half. With the exception of one ball-screen — where Bost was able to create some space and knock down a three — Kentucky smothered Mississippi State’s most dynamic scorer in the second half. The turning point may have actually come earlier in the game. Rodney Hood injured his left knee with five minutes remaining in the first half, and with him out of the game, it freed up Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, one of the best on ball defenders in the country, to slide over and guard Bost.
Once that happened, Kentucky was able to build some momentum. The loose balls and rebounds that the Bulldogs were getting in the first half fell into the hands of the Wildcats in the second half. Anthony Davis, who finished with 13 points and 11 boards, started controlling the interior. Kidd-Gilchrist began doing what he does best, finishing with 18 points, 10 boards, two steals, two blocks and a number of tough finishes around the rim. Terrence Jones, who may very well be this group’s x-factor, added 11 points and was active enough to grab five offensive boards. And once Darius Miller started knocking down clutch jumpers, it was all but over for the Bulldogs.
What was once a moment of glory turned into a shellacking. Kentucky outscored Mississippi State 45-23 in the second half to win going away, 73-64.
The loss backs the Bulldogs into a corner. They are now sitting at 6-7 in SEC play. All of a sudden, their trip to Alabama on Saturday looks like it may end up being a knockout game.
I’ve said it all season long: Kentucky can be beaten by a team that is capable of beating them up on the interior. Mississippi State proved my point tonight.
But I’m also on record as saying that the Wildcats, when they play their best can, are going to be a very, very difficult team to get a win against.
And that, more than anything, is what you should take out of this game.