The skinny: The way things were going, it felt like one of those nights. No. 1 Kentucky trailed 41-28 at the half as Mississippi State was rolling behind Dee Bost and a raucous Humphrey Coliseum. The Wildcats just couldn't get things going and seemed prime for the kind of road upset even the best teams so often fall victim to. UK, though, got down to business after the break, clamping down on defense and finding quality looks on offense. Kentucky (27-1, 13-0 Southeastern Conference) outscored Mississippi State (19-9, 6-7 SEC) 45-23 in the second half en route to a 73-64 win that clinched a share of UK's 45th SEC regular season championship.
The difference: Will to win. UK cut the deficit to just two points with 7:18 play, but the Bulldogs answered with five quick points. After Bost's 3 put MSU back up seven, the crowd in the "Hump" was rocking again and the nation's top-ranked team looked in trouble. Trailing 60-53 with 6:28 remaining, Darius Miller came to play. The senior hit a pair of 3-pointers and three more free throws to score nine of his 12 points during a decisive 20-4 run to close the game. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Anthony Davis and Doron Lamb all came up with big plays down the stretch as well.
Player of the game: Kidd-Gilchrist. Not only did he continue his habit of posting double-doubles in close games with 18 points and 10 rebounds, he also was the key factor in UK's improved second-half defense. Bost torched UK for 16 points and six assists in the first half with Marquis Teague primarily defending him. In the second half, the senior point guard saw a whole lot of the man Kentucky fans call "MKG." With the 6-foot-7 freshman chasing him over screens and on drives, Bost managed just five points and one assist over the final 20 minutes.
Turning point: Kidd-Gilchrist's hoop with 4:06 left that gave UK its first lead was big, but the Cats set the tone for the second half in the opening minutes. Lamb scored five points before the first media timeout, as UK scored 11 of the half's first 15 points to immediately cut the lead to six points. Just as importantly, Kentucky locked in on defense after Mississippi State hit 14-of-29 (48.5 percent) from the field in the first half. In the second half, MSU was just 8-for-25 (32.0 percent).
Key stat: Points in the paint. Teams don't keep pace with UK too often in this department, but Mississippi State did in the first half behind the deft point guard play of Bost. The Cats held just an 18-16 edge in the paint over the first 20 minutes, but it was a different story in the second. UK scored 16 more in the paint after the break and allowed just six to a Bulldog frontline that features Arnett Moultrie, one of the best big men in the nation. Not only did UK protect the basket, but the Cats also closed out possessions with rebounds, out-boarding Mississippi State 36-32.
Unsung hero(es): Doron Lamb. Teague tied a season low by playing just 23 minutes on Tuesday night, which left it to Lamb to run the point for the majority of the second half. Considering he spends no more than 10 to 15 minutes per game in that role normally, he handled himself admirably. He didn't have his best shooting night, hitting just 3-for-9 from the field for 11 points, but the sophomore got his team into the right sets and took care of the ball, committing zero turnovers in 33 minutes.
He said what? "This was as good an environment as we played in this year, and respectful." - Kentucky head coach John Calipari
"I was thinking about starting the game that way and obviously I made a mistake not doing it." - Calipari on Kidd-Gilchrist guarding Bost
"I love that challenge right there. I love playing defense. That's just my game." - Kidd-Gilchrist on guarding Bost
"The only reason Marquis Teague didn't go back in the game is we were on a run and I didn't want to screw it up by making any kind of substitutions. The great thing for him is he was cheering as loud as anybody in the building for his teammates." - Calipari
"When we started playing defense, started locking down, that's what got us going. That provided us with opportunities to make shots." - Miller
"I told them, 'If this game's close, your will to win will take over. Just get it close.'" - Calipari
"Darius Miller is the fiber that holds that whole team together." - Mississippi State head coach Rick Stansbury
What this one means: The immediate and obvious consequence of Tuesday's win is clinching that SEC title, but UK will need one more win or a Florida loss to seal the top seed in the SEC Tournament and an outright title. Beyond that, the victory proved UK can win a game against a talented team when things do go its way. With how well the Bulldogs played and how poorly the Cats played in the first half, Kentucky looked to have no business winning its 19th straight game, but this resilient bunch had other ideas. With just three games left in the regular season, Kentucky is getting closer and closer to locking up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.