One of the things that teams eventually learn at Kentucky since Calipari has been there is that the day you leave your A-game laying around on the locker room floor is the day that SEC opponents rise up and smite you like the Wrath of God. That's what happened to Kentucky tonight, but instead of regressing to the wet-behind-the-ears team of early January that might have dropped this game, they got up, dusted themselves off, and decided to play some basketball in the second half.
A great effort by the Mississippi St. Bulldogs tonight. They went nuts in the first half, and showed Kentucky just how good they can be when they are playing well. But after the half, the Dawgs came out a little cocky, and even though they fought off a couple of Kentucky charges, you could just feel the momentum begin to swing when the Wildcats just refused to go quietly into that good StarkVegas night. Despite an amazing first half from Dee Bost, Michael Kidd-Gilcrhist significantly hampered his effectiveness in the second, and the Wildcats pulled away for a nine point victory.
This game really was a tale of two halves. The Wildcats noticeably failed to compete in the first half, looking like they were just in Starkville for a little scrimmage for funsies and didn't much care who won. When MSU smacked them in the mouth, then spun them around and planted a foot firmly in their keister, Kentucky started barking at the officials, whining at each other, and generally acted like a bunch of sad sacks with the collective spine of a jellyfish. Heading into the half, the Wildcats were extremely fortunate not to be down 18 or 20.
They say the most meaningless score in college basketball is the halftime score. That truism was proven yet again, in spades.
The second half saw the Wildcats that Kentucky fans expected to see finally show up, and that team would never be daunted by a mere six-basket deficit. True to form, UK didn't explode on MSU like fired cannon shell, but rather began working on the big lead like winning teams always do -- they chopped away at it, one chip at a time, one shot at a time, one rebound at a time. If they could be compared to a jellyfish in the first half, they came out in the second like a Portuguese Man-o-War.
After the under 12 timeout, Kentucky was back in the basketball game. From then on, it was hand-to-hand combat as the 'Cats fought to contain a dangerous MSU squad enough to win each segment, or break even. This wasn't pretty basketball, it was a tough, hard-fought, physical contest that saw no less than three technical fouls and two flagrant 1 calls.
But Kentucky, like whatever heroic comeback figure you care to compare them to, just kept coming, kept coming, and kept coming. Darius Miller made threes, lots of threes. Anthony Davis blocked shots. Terrence Jones rebounded and fought a war of attrition in the paint. MKG completely disrupted Dee Bost's career night, and exploited mismatch after mismatch. Everybody made free throws. The result was remorseless in its effectiveness -- the Wildcats emphatically ripped victory from the jaws of defeat, taking out a few teeth in the process.
- Darius Miller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist share my game ball. These two young guys were terrific. Miller hit ridiculously huge shots. Yes, they were open, but very often open shots are the hardest to make. MKG frustrated Bost to the edge of his sanity and just a little beyond, and made hustle play after rebound after stickback. These two were equally huge, and without them both, this would not have been a victory.
- Anthony Davis played the strangest game I've seen him play all year in the first half, but in the second, he did what he does best -- blocked shots, got rebounds, and scored close to the basket.
- Doron Lamb struggled all night from the field, but he ran the team extremely well while Teague was out with fouls -- so well, in fact, that Calipari left him in at the point for the rest of the game. Lamb made free throws, one big three, and just kept chugging along despite his perimeter touch being off.
- Terrence Jones had a terrible first half, but a monster second half defending, rebounding, and doing a ton of great work. He didn't have a great looking stat line, but trust me when I tell you he played better than his stats indicate, particularly in the second half.
Not so superlative.
- Marquis Teague just had a bad game. He was hypercaffinated or something. Teague took bad shots, turned the ball over, made defensive errors, got an unsportsmanlike technical for barking at the officials, and just generally was off his game. He made a couple of threes, but he was largely ineffective and just not himself.
- The whole team repeatedly failed to locate shooters and gave up a bunch of open threes, many of which went in. UK made it hard on themselves by failing to guard the Bulldog shooters, who are known to be more than capable.
- Kyle Wiltjer was injured shortly after entering the game, and although it's just a bruise, it looks like they want to make sure.
Overall, this game generally wasn't that great for Kentucky except in one way: These young Wildcats were presented with the opportunity to surrender a game they didn't need against a team playing lights-out who desperately did need it. They just smiled, declined, and then proceeded to convincingly take the victory away from their opponents after spotting a very good home team 13 points after 20 minutes. That, folks, is what they mean by the term, "killer instinct."
Calipari said he wanted to see how the team responded when a team went "nutty" on them. I wonder what he thinks of their solution to that problem?