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February 22, 2012STARKVILLE, Miss. - As shots fell and shouts rang, as Mississippi State seemed poised to pummel No. 1 Kentucky, John Calipari implored his team simply to hang around.
As long as the Wildcats didn't get run off the court, Calipari figured they'd walk away with a win.
"If this game's close, your will to win will take over," Calipari said he told his team. "Just get it close."
That proved prophetic.
Trailing by as many as 13 points in the first half, Kentucky rallied for a 73-64 win Tuesday night at Humphrey Coliseum, closing the game on a 20-4 run to bury Mississippi State.
Kentucky (27-1, 13-0 Southeastern Conference) held the Bulldogs to 32 percent shooting in the second half and made every key play down the stretch to clinch at least a tie for its 45th regular-season SEC title.
"For us to come down here in the environment that this was in after being down, it takes a lot," said senior Darius Miller, who scored all 12 of his points in the game's final eight minutes. "Like Coach keeps saying, we have a will to win. It seems like at the end of the game, if it's close, we all focus in."
But UK took its time in finding that focus.
It was Flat Tuesday for the Cats in the early going. Befuddled by Mississippi State's sagging zone, UK shot 12-for-31 in the first half, and its offensive woes appeared to carry to the other end of the court.
The Bulldogs (19-9, 6-7) shot 48.3 percent in the first half, including 6-for-12 from three-point range. Dee Bost scored 16 points before halftime. The Hump hopped. The Cats looked rattled.
By halftime, it was 41-28 Mississippi State.
"I thought that first 20 minutes we were about as good as you could be at both ends," Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said. "Defensively, we controlled the game. Offensively, we were very precise."
And it could have been worse for Kentucky.
"We should have been down 20 in the first half the way we played and the way they played," Calipari said. "It was a combination. They played outstanding and we played OK."
That trend reversed after halftime.
UK opened the half on a 13-4 run capped by an Anthony Davis dunk with 13:54 to play that pulled the Cats to within four, 45-41. Terrence Jones' layup with 7:20 remaining cut the Bulldogs' lead to 55-53, the closest the Cats had been since the opening minutes.
But there was one more test left for the Cats' resolve.
The Bulldogs reeled off five quick points - a putback dunk by Arnett Moultrie and a deep three from Bost - to stretch the lead back to 60-53 with 6:28 remaining.
Mississippi State scored four points the rest of the way. Miller had nine by himself.
For the final 6:17, the Cats controlled the game. The Bulldogs made 3-of-8 three-pointers in the second half. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who drew the assignment of guarding Bost after halftime, held the Mississippi State sharpshooter to five points on 1-of-6 shooting in the final 20 minutes.
"Give him credit, he was long and athletic and kind of bothered me a little bit," Bost said. "But at the same time we got the ball where we wanted to get it to but didn't knock down shots."
The Cats could hardly miss down the stretch.
With 4:11 to play, Kidd-Gilchrist grabbed his own missed layup and drew a foul as he powered the ball in. He missed the ensuing free throw, but still gave the Cats the lead for good at 63-62.
"He wasn't going to miss: 'You can grab, kick, punch, I'm not missing this basket,'" Calipari said. "That's will to win. Making shots that you know are daggers. Coming up with loose balls. Coming up with tough rebounds. That's that will to win. Defensively, we're stopping (them) now, everybody. And they did."
Kidd-Gilchrist finished with 18 points to lead UK. Davis (13 points, 11 rebounds, two blocked shots), Miller (12 points), Jones (11) and Doron Lamb joined him in double-digit scoring.
By the finish, it wasn't even close.
"You know what I said to them as it was winding down?" Calipari said. "'What just happened was, everyone here makes plays right now. You blocked the shot, Terrence stopped Moultrie on a drive. You make your three. Michael has a drive and two free throws. Doron makes his shot. You all now are making plays, and we're real good when we do that.'"
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