STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) Malik Monk, Kentucky’s leading scorer, was struggling and so was star guard Isaiah Briscoe. So when the Wildcats needed some clutch baskets late, coach John Calipari turned to freshman point guard De’Aaron Fox and gave him some simple instructions.
“We just said, `Here you go De’Aaron, go and do your thing,”‘ Calipari said.
Fox responded with two clutch baskets on drives to the basket in the final minutes to thwart a final Mississippi State rally and lead the fifth-ranked Wildcats over the Bulldogs 88-81 on Tuesday night.
Fox finished with 21 points while Monk had 14. Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis both scored 13 points and Briscoe added 12.
“A lot of teams have a go-to person, but we don’t have that right now,” Fox said. “So whoever has the hot hand that game is the one that does it.”
Kentucky (16-2, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) looked like it would cruise to the win after building a 66-49 lead midway through the second half, but Mississippi State responded with 13 straight points to make things interesting down the stretch.
Calipari said he was frustrated with his team’s inattention to detail. He was especially irritated when Monk got a technical foul for hanging on the rim after a dunk on an alley-oop pass.
“We go into the AAU mode when we’re playing all freshmen and sophomores,” Calipari said. “There’s a point in the game where they just think `OK, watch this.’
“You’re never going to be that team if that’s what your mindset is.”
In the end, the Wildcats were too potent offensively. The 6-foot-3 Fox was especially impressive, shooting 8 of 15 from the field and adding five rebounds and five assists.
Kentucky also got plenty of production from its forwards. Willis scored all 13 of his points in the first half, stepping out to make three 3-pointers. Gabriel was 5 of 5 from the field, including 3 of 3 from 3-point range.
Mississippi State (12-5, 3-2) was led by freshman Lamar Peters, who scored a career-high 25 points. Quinndary Weatherspoon scored 15 points and Mario Kegler added 13 points and eight rebounds.
Mississippi State shot 32 of 59 (54.2 percent) from the field. The Bulldogs were hurt by 19 turnovers.
“You can’t knock Kentucky – they’re one of the best teams in the country,” Peters said. “But when you look at the talent on our team, I feel like we’re one of the best teams in the country, too. We can hang with anybody. And it’s frustrating because we knew we could have won that game.”
It was an emotional game that featured four technical fouls – two on each team.
Kentucky: The Wildcats continue to put up big numbers on offense, scoring at least 87 points for the sixth straight game. Monk, who leads the team at nearly 22 points per game, wasn’t at his best on Tuesday, but his teammates were more than capable of picking up the slack.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs were able to hang with one of the nation’s best teams for most of the game, but an inability to stop Kentucky on the defensive end proved costly.
QUITE AN ATMOSPHERE
Mississippi State announced a crowd of 9,768, which was its largest of the season. The traffic was so bad before the game outside Humphrey Coliseum that the Bulldogs’ pep band barely made it to their seats on time because its bus was stuck on the road.
Kentucky: The Wildcats return home to face No. 24 South Carolina on Saturday.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs travel to face Tennessee on Saturday.