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UK facing first second-time test at Mississippi State

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James Young had 26 points and 10 rebounds in UK's 85-63 win over Mississippi State on Jan. 8. (Chet White, UK Athletics) James Young had 26 points and 10 rebounds in UK's 85-63 win over Mississippi State on Jan. 8. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
It's a unique experience in conference play, facing a rematch with a familiar opponent. This weekend, Kentucky will take on that challenge for the first time.

After taking down Mississippi State 85-63 on Jan. 8 -- exactly one month before the second round with the Bulldogs -- the Wildcats have reason to be confident.

"(The coaches) really haven't told us anything special about it, but since it's our first time playing a team twice we feel like we should be able to play just like last game because last game we played great," freshman Dominique Hawkins said.

Hawkins is one of eight scholarship freshmen on the youngest team in the country, a fact that might cause some concern that the No. 18/14 Cats (17-5, 7-2 SEC) could overlook Mississippi State (13-6, 3-6 SEC), a team that has lost four in a row. UK, however, is on guard entering Saturday's game at 1:30 p.m. ET (SEC TV).

"We definitely don't want to do that because we know playing in the SEC anything can happen," Hawkins said.

That's especially true away from the comforts of Rupp Arena. At home, UK is a perfect 14-0. In games not in Lexington, the Cats are just 3-5.

"Going into atmospheres on the road, I never experienced anything like this before and I think it's insane how the fans are like yelling at us, telling us names that I never heard before," Hawkins said. "It's just unique though how the fans come up with creative stuff just to try to mess with us and get in our heads."

UK last traveled to Starkville, Miss., en route to its 2012 national championship. The Cats trailed by as many as 13 points and seven with 6:28 to play before rallying to a 73-64 win. In 2010, UK needed double-doubles from John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson to survive an overtime thriller against the Bulldogs.

"I think they've already learned that any road game in the SEC is tough," Jarrod Polson said. "Us veterans have told them: It doesn't matter what team you're playing; if you're on the road in the SEC, it's going to be a dogfight."

Though the final score may have indicated otherwise, the first edition of UK-MSU was a dogfight for much of that Wednesday evening. The Cats fell victim to one of their trademark slow starts as Mississippi State took a double-digit first-half lead. And with 13:11 to go in the game, UK led by just three.

Mississippi State leading scorer Craig Sword had 19 points in that game as the Bulldogs poured in 40 points in the first half.

"They're not going to walk away from us," John Calipari said. "This is a great challenge. They left our building saying, 'We can beat these guys.' "

Previewing the matchup, Coach Cal jokingly asked reporters whether there were any promotions going on with UK coming to town. Told UK-MSU is yet another white-out game, Calipari feigned surprise.

"It's a huge game there, sellout and everything else going on," Calipari said. "It will be a hard game for us."

UK survived a tough road environment last weekend at Missouri, coming away with one of its best wins. Their confidence buoyed, the Cats are looking forward to Saturday.

"I think, honestly, we kind of like to play on the road," Polson said. "It's kind of just us against the world when we're on the road, and we kind of like that, so we're excited for the challenge and hopefully we can come out with a win."

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