Cats get defensive in Mississippi State win

Published 11:43 am Thursday, January 18, 2024

Kentucky is back on track.

The eighth-ranked Wildcats bounced back from their first Southeastern Conference setback of the year— a 97-92 double-overtime loss at Texas A&M last Saturday — with a 90-77 victory over Mississippi State on Wednesday in Rupp Arena.

It was a milestone victory for Wildcats coach John Calipari, who notched his 400th win at the school as Kentucky improved to 3-0 in bounce-back games this season.

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Calipari wasn’t aware of the feat until a Mississippi State player offered his congratulations but was grateful for reaching the milestone.

“You stay long enough and you have enough really good players, a lot of those things happen,” he said. “I’m not doing this for numbers. I don’t even know what my record is. Could care less, but you can see I’m locked into … how can I help these players?”

Following the loss to the Aggies, Calipari and his staff spent considerable time on the defensive end of the court, and it showed against the Bulldogs, especially in the first half.

The Wildcats (13-3, 3-1) limited Mississippi State to just 29 points in the opening half, the team’s best defensive showing in the opening half since an 86-46 win over New Mexico State in the season opener on Nov. 6.

“(We) made a little bit of adjustment in our pick-and-roll defense (and it was an) executive decision. They liked it, I liked it, and now we’re going to really zero in on getting really good at it.”

How much time did the Wildcats spend on defending the pick-and-roll?

“We practiced for two days on defense and we tried to get better at defense,” said Kentucky center Aaron Bradshaw, who finished with 11 points. “We all know we’re a really good offensive team, but slacked on defense. We just had to pick the defense up.”

Antonio Reeves, Kentucky’s leading scorer, led the Wildcats with 27 points. Reeves scored 10 of Kentucky’s first 15 points to set the tone for the Wildcats, who used a 13-0 run, the team’s biggest scoring outburst in four conference games, to build a double-digit lead.

“I was surprised by our lack of urgency,” Mississippi State coach Chris Jans said. “We’ve got some veteran guys who have been there and done that, who I thought who I thought we could rely on a little bit in this type of environment and we just didn’t (handle it well).”

After the stellar first-half effort by the Cats in the first half, Mississippi State scored 14 of the first 16 points of the second half as the Bulldogs trimmed the margin to 49-43, but the Wildcats regrouped and pushed the lead back to double figures for good.

“We told on ourselves (in the first half). We can guard,” Calipari said. “We got a lot of guys thinking about offense and what I can do well today. You know what happened? They went on a run.”

Despite the defensive letdown in the first three minutes of the second half, Kentucky showed it can play high-caliber defense. As Calipari knows, it’s a starting point for his squad and also served notice to his players the top five playing in the moment will get the nod at any given time.

“You better be rebounding, you better be defending, you better be talking, you better be connected to us or I can play somebody else,” Calipari said. “That’s not a threat. That is, ‘come on guys, connect.’”