Cats Struggle Against Mississippi St. and Now Look Toward #5 Kansas
(Photo Courtesy of The Clarion Ledger via Yahoo.com)
A Tuesday night game at 9pm against a bubble Mississippi State team is probably a game Kentucky fans are easy to overlook. Honestly, it would be easy for anyone to overlook, including the team. This by all definitions was a trap game for Kentucky. Coming off a game against the now number one team in the country and looking ahead to Saturday when they play the number five team, this falls perfectly in the middle as a game where UK could come out flat and struggle to pull it out late. And that is almost exactly what happened to the Cats. They squeaked out a 82-74 win in overtime against the Bulldogs, in Rupp.
Kentucky came out of the gates ready to play, and for most of the game seemed like they would not fall victim to a trap game. However, Mississippi State fought back late and took UK into overtime at the end. Kentucky was able to get a lead as large as fifteen in the first half, thanks in part to crowd favorite, Dontaie Allen. The Falmouth, KY native got his first real minutes in a game since early this season and made the most of his opportunity. He didn't quite have the scoring performance we saw from him a year ago against the Bulldogs in Starkville but he was effective none-the-less. Donatie finished with 5 points, 3 rebounds and an impressive block. The hometown hero got the crowd going early in the first half with an electrifying put-back slam and later caused the place to e-Rupp-t when he hit a three-pointer to put the Cats up 15 in the first half. His stats are not eye popping but he was efficient on offense and defense and his shooting ability allowed open looks and driving lanes for others.
There was one person however, who was not to be outdone. That person is of course Oscar Tschiebwe. This was yet another historic performance from the big man this season as he finished with 21 points and 22 rebounds. That is the first 20-20 game for a Kentucky player since 1976. Just add that to him now being only one of three players since '96 to have had five, 20 rebound games in a season. The other two people to have done that? Some guy named Blake Griffin and a person named Tim Duncan, maybe you've heard of them? Thats not the only big names Oscar has been associated with this year. He also broke Shaquille O'Neal's Rupp Arena record for most rebounds in game with 28 a few weeks ago. Shaq's record was 24. Oscar is in good company as he continues to set records and have his name next to (or above) all time greats. Oscar is finally getting the respect nationally as a Player of the Year candidate, and rightfully so.
Sahvir Wheeler and Kellan Grady had some pretty good games themselves. Sahvir left early in the first half (Due to fouls, not injury thank God) but still managed to put up 15 points and 6 assists. Kellan, on the other hand, finished regulation with a modest 10 points and didn't shoot the ball particularly well. However, when it mattered most he came alive, He scored the first eight points in overtime which ultimately led to the Kentucky win. Six of his eight points came on two, almost unbelievable, three-point shots. His ability to score, especially from deep has Wildcat fans (mostly myself) screaming...KELLAN NEEDS MORE SHOTS!
Defensively Kentucky played good but not great. They allowed 43% from the field and 32% from beyond the arc. The problem they ran into was Mississippi State's Iverson "I only play this well against Kentucky" Molinar. I am not sure if he hates the color blue, Calipari didn't recruit him, or of he is just a big game player but it seems that he always plays like an NBA lottery pick against UK. Kentucky had no answer for him the whole game and he was able to score 30 points and hit shots late to keep them in the game. The next leading scorer for the bulldogs only had 11 points and no one else had double-digits.
The Big Question
Now, there is still one question that all of BBN is wondering, what about Shaedon Sharpe? Coach Cal has referenced his progress and the idea of playing him (or not) all week and this was the game many fans (Including myself) was expecting to see Sharpe's debut. And to be fair, this was the first time Sharpe was dressed out on the bench and looked ready to play. In my opinion, Calipari was going to try Dontaie Allen first and if he struggled then Shaedon would go in. However, that just didn't happen. Allen played well and by the time Kentucky needed help scoring the ball, it was too late and too close of a game for a player to make a debut. Don't be too worried Cats fans, I don't believe this means we won't see him this year. Circle the game next Tuesday against Vanderbilt. What better spot for him to get his first minutes than against a bad Vandy team at home with no pressure to be great. However, if we don't see him against Vanderbilt, my confidence in him seeing the court this season drops almost immediately to zero.
The Injury Bug
You may have noticed that I haven't mentioned TyTy Washington just yet. Well, thats because he didn't play in this one. He is still nursing a twisted ankle he suffered against Auburn last Saturday. He was on the bench in his warm-ups and a walking boot. Even for those who did play in against Mississippi State we saw a flurry of injuries. Notably, Jacob Toppin went down on, what seemed to be, a non-contact play (which are always the most worrisome) and looked to be in quite a bit of pain. He was helped off the court but eventually returned to the game and seemed to be okay. Shortly after Toppin went down, Oscar rolled his ankle but later in the post-game interview said he was fine and will be good to go on Saturday and even mentioned he expects TyTy back as well.
What's Next For Kentucky?
Saturday January 29th marks the annual Big 12/ SEC Challenge where Kentucky will travel to Lawerence, Kansas (which seems to happen way more often than them coming to Lexington) to take on Bill Self and the number 5 ranked Jayhawks. Right now Kansas sits at 17-2 on the season and will look to close the all time win gap by 1 against the current leader in Kentucky. After playing at Texas A&M and Auburn, UK should be used to playing in tough environments but Allen Fieldhouse is one of the hardest places to play in college basketball. Not only are the Jayhawks usually good, and their fans are passionate, but they tend to get a little home cooking from the officials. So, Kentucky fans, try not to let your head explode when you see these questionable calls, its par for the course when you play there. With Kentucky presumably having TyTy back, if the Cats can stay healthy and make a few shots, I really like our chance at beating Kansas and making a strong push for the top 8. SSN writer Conner Caldwell already has that game break-down posted so be sure to check that out before Saturday! The game tips-off at 6pm EST on ESPN.