Mississippi State basketball forces No. 12 Kentucky into overtime but can't complete upset

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Teams have tried — and most have failed — to find an answer to slow down Kentucky basketball forward Oscar Tshiebwe. His 6-foot-9, 255-pound frame is imposing, and for Mississippi State without forward Tolu Smith due to a knee injury, matching up with Tshiebwe was daunting at best and impossible at worst.

Both sides of that spectrum were seen Tuesday at Rupp Arena. Tshiebwe scored 21 points and pulled in 22 rebounds, another standout performance from one of the nation’s best players. But when Mississippi State's double-team of Tshiebwe began to work down the stretch, his direct influence waned.

His influence was felt in other facets, though. With so much attention directed to Tshiebwe, No. 12 Kentucky’s other playmakers had opportunities, and in overtime, those stars shined when Tshiebwe’s spotlight dulled, leading to a 82-74 win for the Wildcats.

"There were times in this game that we were really good," Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. "If you're watching this game tonight, you're like, that team has the potential to be a tournament team, no question. They took Kentucky right to the wire and had a chance."

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The first eight points for Kentucky (16-2, 6-2 SEC) in overtime came from guard Kellan Grady, including a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to push the Wildcats lead to six points with just over a minute remaining. After his dominant showing in regulation, Tshiebwe hardly saw the ball in the added time.

Howland picked his poison; he chose to key in on Tshiebwe, slowing his presence down low. But Kentucky has ample scorers, leaving Mississippi State (13-6, 4-3) on the losing end despite a strong second-half comeback.

"You've got to do the little things to win against a really good team, especially on the road," Howland said. "All sorts of little things that hurt you."

Iverson Molinar again

The two biggest shots of Iverson Molinar’s second half came at the line, with Rupp Arena yelling for him to miss. He didn’t, making both to tie the game and send it to overtime.

Molinar has stepped his game up this season for Mississippi State. He’s coming off a 20-point performance against Ole Miss that saw him eclipse the 1,000-point mark in his career. And he poured on a career-high 30 points Tuesday, 20 of them in the second half.

"Just try to attack and be a lot more aggressive than the first half," Molinar said. "A lot more confident than the first half. My layups, my mid-range pull-up was working."

His efforts nearly led an upset. But without a secondary scorer, Mississippi State’s efforts fell short. Howland said he wants Molinar to show that level of aggression on offense from the opening tip.

"We didn't have a lot of confidence coming in the first half," Molinar said. "In the second half, that's what we did. We came a lot more with the swag and the intensity."

The misses

With the chance to cut the deficit to single digits, Garrison Brooks stepped to the line for two shots.

He clanked both.

Mississippi State has infrequently struggled at the line, but those struggles popped up at an inopportune time, proving costly in a close game down the stretch. The Bulldogs shot 14-for-23 with Brooks missing six of those.

"We should execute a lot more and just be more focused at the free-throw line and not let the crowd affect us," Molinar said.

Against Kentucky’s size inside, layups were hard to come by. Mississippi State missed 14 layups, and between those and the free throws, that left 37 potential points on the floor.

The Bulldogs improved in the second half, going from 29.6% to 62.1% in the final 20 minutes. But the points they missed out on earlier meant the late push fell short.

"We missed a lot of shots around the rim, especially in the first half," Howland said. "We did a better job in the second half, but you can't get hurried."

Rebounding

Howland knew the challenge Tshiebwe posed. He leads the country in rebounding, and with Smith out with a knee injury, matching up would be difficult.

"Nobody on our team can take him on one-on-one, much less this conference," Howland said.

Tshiebwe showed his dominance, outrebounding the Bulldogs by himself in the first half. When Tshiebwe momentarily left the court and limped to the locker room midway through the second half, Mississippi State took advantage to slim the score to four. And even after his return, the Bulldogs leveled the game.

But Kentucky went to Tshiebwe consistently down the stretch, working through double teams to put together another strong performance. And when Mississippi State limited his touches in overtime, Grady was there to step up.

Long memories

Four years ago, when D.J. Jeffries was searching for a college program to attend, the former five-star recruit was committed to Kentucky. But once Jeffries decommitted and his father said the Wildcats were “unprofessional” in how they handled the action, there’s always been a lingering frustration.

The fans at Rupp Arena haven’t forgotten. Jeffries wound up going to Memphis before transferring to Mississippi State this offseason. When Jeffries got the ball, the fans booed, still letting the would-be Wildcat hear it for a decision all those years ago.

This article originally appeared on Mississippi Clarion Ledger: Mississippi State basketball forces OT vs No. 12 Kentucky but can't complete upset

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