STARKVILLE — When his team was down 13 points at halftime, Kentucky coach John Calipari knew his team was not that bad off.
“We should have been down 20. They played outstanding and we played okay,” said Calipari.
He admitted he got a little “mean” with his team over the way it played against Mississippi State, but also reminded them of what may have eventually made the difference in the 73-64 comeback victory.
“Indiana did this to us and we came back. This team has a will to win. I told them if the game is close, your will to win will win it,” said Calipari after Tuesday’s win that clinched the Southeastern Conference championship. “There were things we did to let them stay in the game, but I told them to let it get close and our will to win will take over.”
He cited the way Michael Kidd-Gilchrist drove to the basket and finished during UK’s closing 20-4 run in the final 6 minutes, 27 seconds. “A kid grabbed his arm and he just fought through it,” Calipari said. “Not missing baskets. That is a will to win. Making shots that are daggers. Getting loose balls. Getting rebounds. Getting stops. This a terrific win for us.”
Terrific. This might be one of the few times Calipari didn’t give his team enough credit. It was a remarkable win because as Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury correctly noted, the Bulldogs could not have played any better on both ends of the court while building a 41-28 halftime lead.
But Kentucky got back in the game, hung around and then it once again was Miller time. Just as he did in the final five minutes of the win at Vanderbilt, senior Darius Miller took over. He scored all 12 of his points in the final eight minutes. All came on three-point plays — three field goals and a 3-point shot where he was fouled and made all the foul shots.
“Darius made big shots. He made free throws. We got blocks and a couple of defensive stops. This was as good an enviroment as we have played in and respectful, but a great environment,” Calipari said.
And a great win for No. 1 Kentucky.
Mississippi State went into the game determined to keep the Wildcats out of the paint and away from the rim. The goal was not to let Anthony Davis, Terrence Jones and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist win the game with dunks and for the most part State did that even though UK still won the in paint scoring battle 34-22.
The Bulldogs also wanted to keep the Cats off the foul line where they had made more free throws than opponents had attempted in Southeastern Conference play. In the first half, UK?was 2-for-4 at the line and State 7-for-7. In the second half, the Cats were 15-for-17 and State 4-for-8.
We didn’t want to let them drive and foul them,” Stansbury said. “The first half, we did that. The second half, we did not.”
Even though Davis finished with a double-double (13 points, 11 rebounds and two blocks) he was not as dominant inside as he has been many games because the Bulldogs pulled him away from the basket on defense and didn’t let him get free to the rim on offense. However, Calpari had no problem with Davis taking several shots from 10 or more feet from the basket.
“He is doing so many things. The kid deserves to shoot some balls,” Calipari said. “He is blocking shots. He is defending. He is in traffic. He is rebounding. I am going to let him play.”
Calipari also thought Jones was much better in the second half when he had six of his 11 points and four of his six rebounds. But it was about more than numbers.
What happened in the second half was Terrence Jones played. The first half he got pushed around,” the Kentucky coach said. “When he plays, we are really good. When he doesn’t, we have to figure out ways to play.”
True, but what Kentucky figured out was just to let Miller and Kidd-Gilchrist make plays the final six minutes. They scored 17 of UK’s final 20 points and made clutch play after clutch play as part of that will to win that got UK a win a Vanderbilt two games ago after being behind in the final minutes and then did it again at Mississippi State.
Calipari said Mississippi State’s players “all played and all made shots,” especially in the first half when they torched UK’s vaunted defense for 41 points and 48.3 percent shooting. The second half it was 23 points and 32 percent shooting.
“You Kentucky guys know how good those guys are defensively,” Stansbury said. “That’s one of the best Kentucky defensive teams ever and for us to have 41 points the first half, we were pretty efficient. But they are (good defensively) and that’s what enables them to go on the road and win.”
It’s also what could make Kentucky the favorite going into NCAA Tournament play and capable of winning an eighth national championship if it learned one valuable lesson from the first half that it can’t repeat in postseason play.
“I think we came out comfortable. We should never do that, especially against a team as talented as they are,” Miller said.
He’s right. Do that in NCAA play and it could be time to put the basketballs away until next season.
“We came out lackadaisical,” Miller said. “We have to come out hungry and stay focused. When we don’t, stuff like that happens.”
This time Kentucky survived State’s potential first-half knockout punch. But that doesn’t mean it’s time for the Cats to start talking about being NCAA champion.
“We have to keep taking it one game at a time. If we start looking ahead, we take losses and lose focus of what we want to do and that’s getting better every day,” Miller said.
He noted the Cats didn’t lose focus earlier in the year when they were not playing as well and were being criticized even though they were winning.
“When they are saying good things, we can’t think about it,”?Miller said.