Cats Turn To "Graybeards" To Secure Win Over Mississippi State
Frustrated with his talented young team, Kentucky coach John Calipari turned to a couple of rarely used veterans for a lift.
Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson were more than happy to help.
Julius Randle scored 16 points and fellow freshman James Young added 11 as No. 18 Kentucky beat Mississippi State 69-59 on Saturday. But it was Hood and Polson who were on the court when the Wildcats closed the first half on a 19-6 run that proved to be the game's decisive stretch.
Hood made a 3-pointer during the rally — just his second of the season. Polson, a senior, had a couple of steals and rebounds.
But more than that, Calipari said they brought energy to a team that sorely needed it. The veteran coach was both pleased and exasperated he had to go so deep on the bench to find that lift.
"Today, the only time we could play hard was when I put Hood and Jarrod Polson in the game," Calipari said. "I thought Dakari (Johnson) fought, but I thought the rest of us just went through the motions of playing. I just don't get it. But that's what happens when you're a young team."
Kentucky (18-5, 8-2 Southeastern Conference) has won three straight overall and seven in a row over Mississippi State. The Wildcats had an uneven game on offense but forced the Bulldogs into just 38.3 percent shooting (18 of 47) from the field.
Calipari used an unorthodox lineup for much of the game because of ineffective play and foul trouble. Polson (30) and Hood (13) both had season highs in minutes played. Andrew Harrison fouled out after just 15 minutes in the game.
The 6-foot-9 Randle was 8 of 13 from the field and grabbed seven rebounds. Johnson started for the third time this season and added nine points and eight rebounds.
Craig Sword had 12 points and grabbed five rebounds for Mississippi State (13-10, 3-7), which has lost five straight. Gavin Ware and Trivante Bloodman added 12 points each while Roquez Johnson had 10.
Mississippi State coach Rick Ray said Kentucky's ability to grab offensive rebounds in the second half was a problem.
"When we were able to get defensive rebounds, we were able to get out and do things in transition," Ray said. "I think that's where we're the best."
For all of Kentucky's obvious talent and NBA potential, the Wildcats haven't been very good on the road this season, with a 3-5 record away from Rupp Arena before Saturday.
They had another slow start against Mississippi State — even though the two-thirds full Humphrey Coliseum didn't provide a particularly tough road environment.
Kentucky scored the first six points, but the Bulldogs got going with a few penetration baskets by Bloodman. Sword's two-handed dunk on a fast break gave Mississippi State an 11-9 lead.
Kentucky methodically built a 32-23 lead by halftime. The Wildcats went on a 19-6 run to end the half, using the Hood-Polson combination in the backcourt for most of it.
"I'm always ready to play," said Hood, a fifth-year senior. "I'm ready for the opportunity whenever it may come. I was able to make the most of it today."
The 6-5 Hood hit a 3-pointer from the corner — his first since Nov. 10 — to push the Wildcats ahead 30-21.
"The team was happy for him," Calipari said. "And I'm happy for him."
It was one of the few times all afternoon Calipari looked genuinely pleased. Most of the rest of the game was spent lecturing the regulars, who had great moments mixed with exasperating ones.
One time Alex Poythress missed an easy dunk and Calipari stared at him incredulously before pointing his finger at the bench and shaking his head.
But Mississippi State couldn't take advantage of Kentucky's slow start, making just 28 percent (7 of 25) of its shots in the first half. The Bulldogs were playing without starting point guard I.J. Ready, who missed the game because of illness.
Kentucky led for the entire second half, and two free throws by Young put the Wildcats ahead 51-39 with 10:30 remaining.
The Bulldogs twice pulled within seven points, but could never make a serious dent in the lead. Kentucky's size advantage allowed them to get easy baskets in the paint and make life difficult for Mississippi State's offense.
Kentucky had a 38-33 rebounding advantage and scored 40 points in the paint.
"In the first half our defense was sharp and composed," Ware said. "In the second half I thought we had some loose ends."