Tuesday night basketball in Rupp Arena featured the Kentucky Wildcats and Mississippi State Bulldogs. The seats didn’t sell out, but the matchup was as good as it had been all season in Lexington. Kentucky was winners of four straight and fresh off an 82-80 victory at Auburn. Mississippi State was the 22nd-ranked team in the country and poised to present a significant challenge for the Wildcats.
Kentucky quickly started the first half down 0-4 but immediately stormed back with a 20-2 run. Led by Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro, Kentucky took a 34-26 lead into halftime.
Coming out of the half, the Bulldogs put more emphasis on sticking to Herro but gave up offense to other Wildcats in the process. Kentucky’s lead was cut to as many as two but head coach John Calipari and his team never flinched. The eighth-ranked Wildcats captured a 76-55 victory over the Bulldogs, marking their fifth straight over the last three weeks.
It was the lowest output by the Bulldogs this season in another strong defensive effort by the Wildcats. Mississippi State made just three of 20 attempts from deep.
Washington Leads the Pack
PJ Washington has taken some (mild) heat this season for his inconsistencies scoring the basketball. While the sophomore remains in the first round of most NBA mock drafts, his production has indeed been hit or miss.
Washington has upped his game recently, and that continued tonight against a strong Bulldogs frontline. Washington reached double figures for the third-straight game, and Kentucky needed every bit of it tonight.
That included maybe the best dunk Washington has had this season in the grill of Robert Woodard:
PJ Washington. Throw. Down. pic.twitter.com/AxnLPjSKeQ— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) January 23, 2019
When his team needed a second-half offensive boost and the veteran delivered. Washington posted a team-high 21 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked three shots in the win. Kentucky has been magnificent over recent weeks but would flourish even more with this kind of production from Washington.
Herro Lights it Up
11 of Tyler Herro’s 18 points came in the first half, fueling Kentucky throughout their game-changing run. As reigning SEC Freshman of the Week, Herro showed no signs of slowing down. For a Wildcats offense that struggled from behind the arc last season, Herro’s presence shooting the basketball has been stellar.
He’s not just a shooter, though, as he grabbed five rebounds during Tuesday’s contest after averaging five rebounds per game last week. His ability to flourish as an overlooked recruit is bringing about flashbacks of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
Turnovers Suddenly An Issue
It could easily be an anomaly, but Kentucky wasn’t exactly careful with the basketball on Tuesday night. After nine turnovers in the first half, Kentucky coughed the ball up seven more times in the second half to total 16 for the game. What made matters worse was the fact Mississippi State scored 13 points off the Wildcats’ errors.
Against a high-octane offense like Kansas, Kentucky will need to be much more careful with the basketball. It’s just one game, but bad habits can settle in quickly if not taken care of.
Travis Dominates Boards as Offense Falters
This was another game to forget offensively for Reid Travis, who continues to struggle against teams with plenty of size and athleticism in the paint. The Bulldogs have one of the deepest frontlines in the SEC with Reggie Perry, Aric Holman, Robert Woodard and Abdul Ado.
Regardless of which big was in, Travis couldn’t find any rhythm, missing five of his six shot attempts.
But while his offense went cold, Travis found other ways to make a big impact. He finished with a game-high 12 rebounds to go with a block and a steal. He affected several shots and showed he can protect the rim better than the numbers say.
Hagans Contributing in More Ways Than One
Over the first third of Kentucky’s season, Ashton Hagans was in and out of Calipari’s lineup. Since the departure of Quade Green, Hagans has twice won SEC Freshman of the Week and often led the team in scoring. He’s also been a steal machine, posting a stretch of seven games with three or more in each contest.
However, in Kentucky’s two most recent wins, Hagans has taken a back seat to the scoring role. Instead, he’s focused on getting teammates involved and running an efficient offense. The freshman’s dedication has paid off, as he’s dished out 15 combined assists in his last two outings.
Moving forward, Hagans being multi-dimensional is key for the Wildcats and their ability to efficiently score the basketball.
Bring on the Jayhawks
The Kentucky Wildcats are winners over five straight, with their last two being over top-25 teams. On Saturday, Kentucky will play host to the ninth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks. While Bill Self’s club lost at unranked West Virginia last Saturday, Kentucky should expect a gritty game from a solid basketball team.
The Wildcats have also lost three-straight games to the Jayhawks, including their last trip to Rupp in 2017. Kansas also narrowly beat Kentucky in last year’s Champions Classic, and you know guys like PJ are going to have some extra incentive for revenge.
With that being said, Kentucky looks to be the superior team in this matchup and should be able to handle business accordingly. Tip-off is set for 6 pm EST.