The Cats left home for a week, and like any pampered house cat on the road, they took a few lumps. LSU dominated UK like few teams have the in Calipari era, beating Kentucky in Baton Rouge 85-67. But the Wildcats bounced back in their next road test at Tuscaloosa, defeating Alabama 77-61, looking like a well-oiled machine in the process.
No doubt, the Cats were glad to get back at Rupp for the Tuesday night ESPN game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Under Coach Cal, the Big Blue is 49 and three against SEC opponents at Rupp Arena, and is on an overall 29 game-winning streak here, last losing at home on Feb 27, 2014 against Arkansas.
UK looked much more comfortable back in familiar surroundings and moved the ball smartly against the Bulldog zone defense. They had 10 assists on 16 first half baskets. Kentucky attempted 17 3-point shots in the first period and made six, Jamal Murray leading the way, with three of seven from beyond the arc, on his way to 11 first-half points.
The Wildcats got very little production from their big men in the opening half. Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee and Skal Labissiere combined for five points and eight rebounds. Kentucky’s inability to get the ball inside meant the Cats only attempted two free throws in the opening 20 minutes, making one.
Cause for halftime concern: in UK’swins they have averaged making 4.8 3-pointers a game, while in their losses they have been making 13 per game. Settling for 3s has so far seemed to doom the Cats.
The second half presented stark evidence of the uneven nature of this years’ team. After leading by eight at halftime (39-31) the Cats roared out of the second half gate to lead by 20 (53-33) with 14:26 to go. Mississippi State whittled away at the lead the remainder of the game and with 1:17 to go had cut the lead to three (74-71).
UK did get to the line 18 times in the second half and made 14. None more important than the four in a row Alex Poythress made inside the final minute. After the great game Alex had against Alabama, it is a real head scratcher as to how he can be pretty much a non-factor, finishing with six points and eight rebounds.
Coach Cal had stated last week that any team without a big man was a “fraud.” Kentucky got very little production from its big men Tuesday night, but thanks to the outstanding play of Murray, Tyler Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe, they had enough to hold off the Bulldogs.
For this team to really be a factor in the post season, they must get more consistent play from their interior players.
Random notes and sights from Rupp Arena:
• With UK classes not set to resume until Jan. 13, the alumni band was on hand to serve as the pep band.
• The pregame UK introductions, with searchlights flashing around the arena, pyrotechnics greeting every player, and rock music blaring, would have surely pleased Ziggy Stardust. RIP David Bowie.
• After double technical fouls were called (I am still unsure exactly what happened), Isaiah Briscoe stood at the line by himself to shoot a one and one free throw. Having made only four of his last 22, the odds seemed better of winning the Powerball. He missed, and I assume my Powerball ticket will too, but there is always hope for next time.