STARKVILLE – An obviously relieved John Calipari was talking after his fifth-ranked Kentucky Wildcats fought off a furious Mississippi State second half rally to beat the Bulldogs 71-67 Saturday.
“We held on to the rope, but our hands are bleeding right now,” is the way Calipari metaphorically described his team after it led by 15 at halftime and by 18 early in the second half and then by only one with eight minutes left to play.
“They’re a Top 20 team,” Calipari said of the Bulldogs. “They are a team that will advance in the (NCAA) tournament. They’re physically tough. They’ve got great guard play….”
Perhaps, but State, ranked as high as No. 14 earlier in the season, is not ranked now. More importantly, Saturday’s loss dropped the Bulldogs to 4-6 in the SEC and 16-7 overall. The Bulldogs have fallen solidly into the SEC’s second division, which is not where you want to be heading into the middle of February.
“We need to win,” State’s Ben Howland said. “We need to win Tuesday night against Alabama. We don’t need to drop to 4 and 7.”
Alabama comes to The Hump for an 8 p.m. game on Tuesday. The Crimson Tide not only has already defeated State (83-79 on Jan. 29), but is the only SEC team that has been good enough to beat Kentucky (20-3, 9-1).
If any mid-February game can be called a must-win, then Alabama will be one for State. The Bulldogs already have lost three SEC games on their home floor. They can’t afford another home loss.
And here’s the deal: The Bulldogs aren’t playing poorly. They lost in overtime to oh-so-talented LSU on Wednesday night. That came after a tough road victory over Ole Miss, which nevertheless is now 2.5 games ahead of State in the SEC standings.
The Bulldogs had a chance to beat Kentucky on Saturday, but they couldn’t get it done. Heart-breaking losses are nothing new. The Bulldogs lost at South Carolina in overtime. They lost to Ole Miss, here, by four points. They lost by four at Alabama. They lost that overtime game to LSU. They could just as easily be 6-4 as their current 4-6, but you are what your record says you are and currently the State is desperate for some success.
“I liked our fight, I liked our effort,” Howland said. “I’m proud of how we competed.”
Most of that fight and effort came in the second half after Kentucky had taken a 49-31 lead on PJ Washington’s 3-pointer with 16 minutes, 41 seconds left to play. Then, just when you thought Kentucky might blow the Bulldogs away and empty The Hump early, State suddenly caught fire. Q Weatherspoon, scoreless in the first half, hit the first of his three second half treys to begin the rally. More importantly, State turned up its intensity on defense, getting the crowd of more than 9,000 into the game.
The Bulldogs fed off the crowd. Lamar Peters found the range. Freshman Robert Woodard made some big baskets. So did Nick Weatherspoon.
“I told our team at halftime that they would have two good runs in them in the second half,” Calipari said. “I told them we gotta respond to those runs and we did.”
The biggest response of all came from guard Tyler Herro, who might just as well have dropped one “r” from his last name for what he did with 2:59 remaining. Kentucky was clinging to a four-point lead. The crowd was deafening. State was defending well. The shot clock was running down. And then the 6-foot-5 Herro, hit a well-guarded, NBA-length trey, falling away from the basket right in front of the Kentucky bench.
“How about that shot?” Calipari would later say.
Shots like that win tough games. And those are the clutch, tough shots State has failed to make in too many games this season.
“I thought we played well enough to win,” Howland said. He could have said the same after the LSU game earlier in the week.
But again, you are what your record says you are. Right now, the Bulldogs are two games under .500 in a league that is as good as it has been over 25 years. It’s not going to get any easier, so, clearly, State must get better.