By JOEL COLEMAN
In the hours leading up to Mississippi State’s Tuesday night showdown against No. 5 Kentucky, students formed a line that stretched from the door of the Humphrey Coliseum past the Palmeiro Center hundreds of feet away. A total crowd of 9,768 fans, MSU’s largest attendance this season, came with visions of an upset. They all almost got their wish.
The Bulldogs fought back from an 18-point deficit and got within three points down the stretch before the Wildcats held on for an 88-81 victory. In what could almost certainly be deemed a moral victory for MSU against a perennial national title contender, State couldn’t help but think about how it was almost so much more.
“It’s frustrating,” Mississippi State guard Lamar Peters said. “You can’t knock that team. That’s one of the best teams in the country, but when you look at the talent on our team, I feel like we’re one of the best teams in the country. We can hang with anybody. It’s frustrating because we know we could’ve won that game. Give shout outs to Kentucky. They came out and played well and they came out and did what they do every night, which is give you their best. I felt like we had a great shot to win the game.”
Ultimately, MSU (12-5, 3-2) had simply dug itself too big of a hole to climb out of. Kentucky (16-2, 6-0) never trailed in the game, led by double figures for much of the contest and held a 64-46 lead with just 12:20 left in the game before the Bulldogs surged to life. Mississippi State used a 13-0 run in the middle of the second half to close its deficit to 66-62 and got to within three at 69-66 with 7:49 left. That’s as close as the Bulldogs could get though as their early hole proved to be too great.
“I’m really disappointed in how we let such a big lead occur,” MSU head coach Ben Howland said. “We went down 18. If we had only been down 10, we had a chance to win this game.”
Peters played a huge role in keeping the Bulldogs in the thick of things. The electric freshman scored a game-high and career-best 25 points. He also had seven rebounds and a pair of assists.
“When we were down, I just wanted to stay aggressive,” Peters said. “I wanted to stay away from bad shots. Lay-ups are good quality shots. Whenever I had the ball, I was just trying to finish or kick it out to the open man.”
Two other Bulldogs scored in double figures. Quinndary Weatherspoon totaled 15 points. Mario Kegler added 13.
Despite their contributions though, MSU found itself playing catch-up all evening. Just when State would seemingly grab momentum with a quick score or two, Kentucky was able to snatch it away with buckets of their own.
“We just had a couple of defensive breakdowns,” Weatherspoon said of MSU’s inability to ever take a lead. “When they went to the pick and roll, we just couldn’t defend that pick and roll at certain times.”
Kentucky freshman guard De’Aaron Fox was the biggest spark for the Wildcats. Fox led Kentucky with 21 points, which featured several critical shots and nine points in the last 3:41.
“Most teams have a go-to person, but we don’t really have that right now so it’s whoever has the hot hand I guess,” Fox said.
With Fox shouldering a majority of the load, Kentucky was able to escape the Humphrey Coliseum with a victory, but it wasn’t without a major fight.
“We’re supposed to be this end-all, be-all team and they had us on the ropes,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said of MSU. “They had their chances to win.
“Hats off to them.”