By Jamie H. Vaught
It was a good win for the Kentucky Wildcats Tuesday night.
The eighth-ranked Wildcats saw their NCAA tournament resume improve with a convincing 76-55 victory over a formidable Mississippi State club, which is rated No. 22 in this week’s Associated Press Top 25 poll, before 21,449 fans at Rupp Arena.
The win improved UK’s record to 3-1 against AP Top 25 opponents this season, defeating other currently ranked teams North Carolina, Louisville and Auburn. Also, it was Kentucky’s fifth straight victory after dropping the SEC opener against Alabama.
The Wildcats, now 15-3 overall, will get another opportunity to boost their resume with Saturday’s showdown coming up against No. 9 Kansas at Rupp Arena.
In stopping MSU, Kentucky used its aggressive defense with eight steals and the ice-cold Bulldogs, who had 15 turnovers, only hit 31.1 percent of their shots, including 3 of 20 from the three-point line. The Wildcats held MSU, which is one of the nation’s top rebounding and three-point shooting teams, to a season-low 55 points.
“This was about beating a Top 20 team, a team that's played well all year,” said Kentucky coach John Calipari. “A team that makes nine threes per game missed some shots today, thank goodness, and then they rebounded like crazy. They are one of the best rebounding teams in the country. They missed a lot of shots that they normally make.”
UK sophomore PJ Washington (pictured) took the scoring honors with a game-high 21 points. He also blocked four shots and grabbed six rebounds. Freshman teammate Tyler Herro followed with 18 points and five rebounds. Both were deadly from the three-point line as Washington hit 3 of 5, while Herro went 3 for 3.
Kentucky’s Ashton Hagans had a career-high nine assists along with two steals. Reid Travis led the Wildcats with 12 rebounds.
Senior guard Quinndary Weatherspoon had a team-high 19 points for the Bulldogs. Freshman Robert Woodard led MSU with 13 rebounds.
“I thought the University of Kentucky was really impressive tonight,” said MSU coach Ben Howland, who is looking to become the 15th coach in history to lead four different programs to the NCAA tournament. “Facing them here, I liked their defense in particular, they really caused us a lot of problems. They forced us nine turnovers in the first half, although two or three of those were ones where we shot ourselves in the foot.
“I thought they had us playing fast and had us playing to where we were in a hurry rather than being in control offensively in the first half, and we were probably fortunate to only be down eight (at halftime), and I thought we did a great job battling back. It was 41-39 and they called a timeout and we had some momentum at that point and right away they came out and really executed well on both ends of the floor. …. We really struggled tonight offensively and give them credit with their defense.”
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MSU has a player from the state of Kentucky. Six-foot-10 Aric Holman, who struggled against the Wildcats, is from Owensboro High School where he led the team to 2015 state title. A four-star recruit, he was a finalist for Kentucky Mr. Basketball.
Holman, who was averaging 12.4 points and 8.1 rebounds, did not score a point and had two rebounds against Kentucky in 20 minutes of action before fouling out. He blocked two shots and had two steals.
Howland was asked if coming to back to Kentucky affected Holman.
“They (Lexington Herald-Leader) wrote an article about him here locally. They talk about how it’s his senior year and how he has a lot of family here,” said MSU coach. “That’s something you would have to ask him. That necessarily wouldn’t be a big surprise if that happened.”
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While Howland has a veteran team, he is obviously pleased with UK’s efficient performance in January.
“It really helps to have a fifth year in Reid (Travis). There is a lot of experience between him and PJ Washington. For him to be a sophomore and be as good as he is,” Howland. “They have two really experienced guys up there. Nick Richards is back for his sophomore year. It’s just something that hasn’t always happened because these guys sometimes leave early. I think those three guys really anchor their front line.
“I think their perimeter players, those three freshmen are really good. They have Ashton (Hagans) who is 19 years old and he’s mature. I think Tyler (Herro) is fantastic. He really hurt us early tonight. When we talk about that run, I mean they ran something they haven’t run before. They had a double screen, he jumped out of bounds then jumped in bounds and caught for a 3. Those guys did a really good job and I think Immanuel (Quickley) give them good depth coming in. He’s a real high-level guard. They don’t drop out when he comes in the game.
“So, they’ve got good depth and they are playing with a lot of poise. Part of it is their schedule. They have played a tough schedule early. Think about where they were during the first game of the year versus Duke. It’s credit to John (Calipari) and his staff -- Hall of fame coach.”
Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball. He is the editor and founder of KySportsStyle.com magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro. You can follow him on Twitter @KySportsStyle or reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle@gmail.com.
Photo by Jamie H. Vaught