At halftime of No. 14 Kentucky’s eventual 80-74 win against Mississippi State on Tuesday night, ESPN analysts took a moment to ponder a question that a year ago would have been preposterous. Who’s the best basketball team in the SEC?
A season ago, it was undoubtedly Kentucky. In fact for years, it’s been a no-brainer — Kentucky. Yet, analysts are left wondering if right now perhaps it’s undefeated South Carolina.
If they were looking for clarity, the Wildcats did not provide it on Tuesday. There were moments against Mississippi State when Kentucky was brilliant and the offense was clicking on all cylinders. But there were also several moments of mental miscues, sloppy play and questionable decisions that saw a 20-point lead dwindle into just two points with about a minute to play.
This Kentucky team has some major growing pains it needs to address. But nonetheless, the Wildcats picked up their 13th win of the season.
The turning point: Kentucky carried a 39-31 lead into halftime and absolutely exploded out of the break. By about five minutes into the second half, Kentucky’s eight-point lead had more than doubled into a 20-point advantage. But Mississippi State chipped away relentlessly. Slowly but surely, in a 10-minute period, the deficit went from 20 to seven. With 35 seconds to play, Kentucky led by just three. A game that had seemed completely out of reach earlier in the half gave Kentucky a run for its money down the stretch.
MVP: Tyler Ulis. The sophomore guard wasn’t Kentucky’s highest scorer, but as he has all season, he served as the glue that held the Wildcats together when Mississippi State mounted a massive comeback. Ulis had 21 points, while Jamal Murray led all scorers with 22. Ulis shot 50 percent from the field and was a perfect 5-for-5 from the charity stripe.
Memorable moment: With 35.1 seconds remaining, Kentucky up three and Ulis on the free-throw line, Ulis likely made Kentucky fans’ hearts race with two foul shots that rolled around a little extra before dropping in. Ulis’ first free throw rolled four times around the rim. The second clanked off the rim before dropping in. That gave Kentucky a five-point cushion, no longer making it a one-possession game.
Starting lineup: Marcus Lee, Tyler Ulis, Isaiah Briscoe, Jamal Murray and Alex Poythress.
Off the bench: Skal Labissiere, Charles Matthews, Mychal Mulder, Derek Willis
What’s next: The Wildcats travel to Auburn on Saturday for a 4 p.m. tip.