Veteran leadership propels short-handed Cats past Mississippi St. in OT

·4 min read

In defeating Mississippi State 82-74 on Tuesday night, Kentucky breathed life into something associate coach Orlando Antigua said in previewing the game. If star freshman TyTy Washington could not play, UK could adjust and win.

Washington’s ankle injury in Saturday’s loss at Auburn prompted the what-if question.

“Fortunately for us, we have a really smart, veteran team, and we’ll be able to make those adjustments if we need to. …,” Antigua said. “The beauty of our veterans is they know this. … (They have) been in the college game and understand what is required when the opportunity presents itself.”

Kentucky needed all of that to improve to 16-4 overall and 6-2 in the Southeastern Conference.

Two players with veteran savvy rescued Kentucky. With the scored tied at 64-64, Oscar Tshiebwe made a layup while being fouled.

Sahvir Wheeler capped UK’s next possession by driving for a score.

Tshiebwe and Wheeler combined to score UK’s final 11 points of the second half. But it wasn’t enough to outdo Iverson Molinar. He scored State’s final 10 points with two free throws tying it at 72-72. He finished a career-high 30 points.

After Kellan Grady missed a long three-point shot in the final seconds, it was on to overtime.

Grady more than made up for the miss. He scored UK’s first eight points of overtime: a driving layup from the right side finished with the left hand, then back-to-back three-pointers. The second put UK ahead 80-74 and prompted a State timeout with with 1:12 left.

For all his production this season, Tshiebwe posted another first. His 21 points and 22 rebounds marked the first time he had 20 or more of each in a game this season.

Grady finished with 18 points. Wheeler added 15.

Dontaie Allen, who has a history of playing well against Mississippi State, also gave Kentucky and the crowd a boost.

But trepidation was part of the game, never more so than when Jacob Toppin slipped to the floor as he drove midway through the second half. Toppin stayed down as Rupp Arena grew eerily quiet.

Less than a minute after Toppin was helped off the floor, Tshiebwe limped to the bench — and then the locker room — clearly favoring his left ankle.

Two quick fouls on Wheeler before the first television timeout and Davion Mintz picking up three first-half fouls suggested a troubling night for a Kentucky team already short-handed at point guard.

But even with Washington sidelined, Kentucky rolled to a 37-24 halftime lead.

The combination of Allen and defense propelled Kentucky to clear superiority.

Allen, who twice scored a career-high 23 points against Mississippi State last season, again had a star turn against the Bulldogs.

Allen entered the game with 10:31 left. Barely two minutes later, he flew high for a putback dunk of Kellan Grady’s miss. His first points since November put UK ahead 25-13 with 7:57 left.

Less than two minutes later, State’s leading scorer, Molinar, sped toward a fast-break layup. But, much to the delight of the crowd, Allen caught up and blocked the shot. That was Allen’s first block since getting two against Robert Morris in the second game of the season.

With 1:26 left, Allen made his first three-point shot since November. That gave Kentucky its largest first-half lead at 35-20.

Toppin gave Kentucky another surprise contribution. He made his first three-point shot of the season (on only his second attempt) with 4:37 left.

Meanwhile, State struggled to put the ball in the basket. The Bulldogs made only four of their first 20 shots.

That made playing without Washington seem irrelevant to the outcome.

Nothing early in the second half changed that perception. A Grady three-pointer extended UK’s lead to 45-29 with 16:48 left.

Molinar’s floater with 13:16 left brought Mississippi State within single digits (47-38) for the first time since the 9:20 mark of the first half.

Kentucky’s recapturing of the momentum was anything but a surprise. The team’s twin pillars — Tshiebwe and Wheeler — combined on a 6-0 run that put UK ahead 53-38 and prompted a State timeout with 12:23 left. Tshiebwe contributed two putbacks while Wheeler scored on his signature drive to the basket.

But Kentucky needed more veteran savvy to secure the victory.

State went on a 17-6 run to reduce Kentucky’s lead to 59-55. UK called timeout with 6:23 left to ponder its smallest lead since 12-9.

Twice State tied the score, the second time with 3:44 left. That set up a possession-by-possession test.

Next game

No. 12 Kentucky at No. 5 Kansas

What: SEC/Big 12 Challenge

When: 6 p.m. Saturday

TV: ESPN

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