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Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s thrilling win at Mississippi State

Three takeaways from Kentucky basketball’s heart-stopping 91-89 victory over Mississippi State on Tuesday night at Humphrey Coliseum.

1. Reed Sheppard was ridiculous

The icing on the cake was the fact that Reed Sheppard hit the winning shot with just 0.5 seconds left, his floater in the lane off a pass from D.J. Wagner dropping through the net just in time to award the Cats an impressive road win over a quality opponent after being 13 points down.

But the 6-foot-3 freshman with the Big Blue bloodlines did more than that. So much more. Sheppard scored 32 points on the night. He made 11 of his 14 shots, including 4 of his 7 3-point attempts. He was a perfect 6-for-6 at the foul line. He was credited with seven assists, five rebounds and two steals.

“And I was about to choke him when he made that pass,” UK coach John Calipari said of Sheppard’s ill-advised length-of-the-floor heave that was intercepted by Mississippi State and led to Tulo Smith making two free throws to cut Kentucky’s lead to 87-86 with 20.1 seconds left.

But Calipari also said this about Sheppard: “He plays to win.”

Oh yes, he does. Sheppard scored 23 points in the second half, including nine of the Cats’ final 15. His old-fashioned three-point play put UK up 81-75 with 1:09 remaining. He made all four of his free throw attempts in the final 35.6 seconds, including two with 16.7 left to make it 89-86.

And when State’s star freshman Josh Hubbard drained a three two tie it 89 with 8.1 remaining, it was Sheppard who hit the winning shot, just as he practiced doing so many times in the backyard of his famous parents.

“That,” said the freshman, “was really cool.”

With less than two seconds remaining in the game, Kentucky guard Reed Sheppard (15) shoots the ball to give Kentucky a 2-point lead against Mississippi State at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss.
With less than two seconds remaining in the game, Kentucky guard Reed Sheppard (15) shoots the ball to give Kentucky a 2-point lead against Mississippi State at Humphrey Coliseum in Starkville, Miss.

2. This was a big-time road win for Kentucky

Last Wednesday in Baton Rouge, Kentucky squandered a 15-point lead and lost a buzzer-beater 75-74 to LSU. Last Saturday, Mississippi State went into Baton Rouge and drilled the Tigers 87-67 at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Three days later, Kentucky visits Starkville, falls behind by 13 points and rallies to win at the horn.

You try and figure these guys out. But to me, the most impressive thing about the Cats’ comeback was that it didn’t come all at once.

Down 43-35 at the half, Calipari’s club came out of the tunnel and immediately fouled Hubbard as he drained a 3-pointer. The freshman hit the free throw, then nailed another three a minute later. And when Shakeel Moore scored on a fast break at the 18:11 mark, the Bulldogs’ lead was 52-39.

From there, Kentucky just kept chipping away. The Cats scored six straight points to cut the lead to 52-45. With 11:31 left, they had cut the margin to 58-53. When Adou Thiero threw down a dunk at the 10:36 mark, State’s lead was 60-58. And it wasn’t until Rob Dillingham drained a 3 from the left corner with 4:23 left that Kentucky had its first lead of the night, 72-71.

Kentucky stretched the lead to eight at 83-75 with 57.4 left, only to see Hubbard go nuclear with back-to-back 3-pointers on the way to his game-high 34 points. But even when Hubbard hit the last of his seven made triples at that 8.1-second mark, Kentucky would not be denied.

“That’s a good team,” Calipari said of the Bulldogs. “That’s not a first-round, or second-round, that’s a third-round (NCAA) team and you look up and you’re playing them. I’m glad were not playing them anymore.”

3. This is how you want to march into March

After Kentucky played at the top of its game to swarm SEC-leader Alabama 117-95 on Saturday at Rupp, the question was whether these often inconsistent Cats could put together another winning performance, this time on the road.

Mission accomplished, at a time of the season when accomplishments really count. Not just for SEC Tournament seeding or, more importantly, for NCAA Tournament seeding. But also for a team’s confidence at a time when you want to march into March.

Justin Edwards scored just two points after his breakout performance of 28 points against the Crimson Tide. Ugonna Onyenso had just two rebounds and failed to score in 12 minutes. Dillingham was 2-for-7 and turned it over three times. Zvonimir Ivisic scored two points in 21 minutes.

Kentucky won anyway. D.J. Wagner made two key 3-pointers, dished four assists and made the right decision to get the ball to Sheppard at the end. Adou Thiero scored 11 points and was physical in a game that required physicality. And, unlike last week at LSU, this young team didn’t panic when things were not going their way.

All of those are good signs in a season that has just three regular-season games remaining, starting with Saturday’s home game against Arkansas. Vanderbilt visits Rupp for UK’s home finale on Wednesday. Then Kentucky closes out the regular season March 9 in Knoxville against Tennessee. That one should be really fun.

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