LEXINGTON (AP) — Practicing twice a day since Kentucky last played on Dec. 28 figured to yield some benefits for James Young and the Wildcats.
Young scored 15 of his 26 points before halftime, and No. 14 Kentucky used hot shooting to rally from a halftime deficit and beat the Bulldogs 85-63 on Wednesday night.
“If I’m open, they just told me to shoot it,” Young said. “They’ve got a lot of confidence in me, a lot of confidence in my shot. If I’ve got the open shot, I’m going to take it.”
Young shot 8 of 18 from the field to lead Kentucky, which made 49 percent overall (30 of 61).
The Wildcats (11-3) played for the first time in 11 days and started slow offensively, trailing 40-37 at the break. They regrouped to tie the game at 47 with 16:47 remaining before going on a 27-6 run over the next 10:54 for a 74-53 lead.
Kentucky shot 65 percent in the second half to pull away in the SEC opener for both schools. Mississippi State (10-4) went nearly 9 minutes without a field goal as it lost for just the second time in seven games.
Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress each added 12 points for the Wildcats. Julius Randle grabbed 14 rebounds to go with eight points.
Craig Sword’s 19 points led the Bulldogs, who shot 23 of 57 from the field (40 percent).
Kentucky’s first game since beating No. 12 Louisville 73-66 began slowly as the Wildcats trailed 12-2 and 18-8 to Mississippi State, which returned from a nine-day layoff to beat Maryland Eastern Shore on Saturday. The Bulldogs started quickly and looked fresher, going after loose balls and taking advantage of lazy plays by the Wildcats.
The performance frustrated Kentucky coach John Calipari, who had expected his players to be sharper on both ends of the floor after spending a lot of time together over the semester break working on many aspects of the game. He got his wish in the final 20 minutes as the Wildcats shot better, hitting 17 of 26 from the field, and had 12 of their 18 assists.
“They hit some shots early and we were missing a lot of shots,” Poythress said. “We should’ve been more focused on defense. That’s how we gave up 40 points in the first half and that’s way too much.
“In the second half, we started guarding, started defending and tried to hold them.”
More importantly, the Wildcats knocked down shots they had missed in the first half.
Kentucky’s run was spurred mostly by Young’s play — and several alley-oops. In one spurt starting at the 11:54 mark, Young lobbed a pass to Poythress for a slam, hit a 3-pointer, made two free throws, lobbed to Randle and then lobbed to Poythress again for a one-handed dunk.
It all combined to give Kentucky a 68-53 cushion, which Wildcats assistant coach John Robic said was just a matter of Kentucky getting back in the rhythm of playing again.
“I think we were rusty,” said Robic, who spoke after the game in place of Calipari. The head coach left for the hospital to be with his son, Brad, who had surgery Tuesday for a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“Having (10) days (off), even the players were like, ‘We finally get to play a game.’ It’s just the way the schedule went, but I do think we were a little bit rusty.”
Aaron Harrison then assisted on two lobs in a row to give Kentucky a 76-54 lead with 5:12 remaining.
Mississippi State finally scored with 4:41 left on Gavin Ware’s basket after a field goal drought that lasted 8:30.
“They (the Wildcats) got a lot of post touches, and we weren’t getting back on defense,” said Sword, who was 5 of 12 from the field and 9 of 10 from the foul line. “We were shooting bad shots. Coach told us not to shoot bad shots and it is like a turnover because they can push the ball. We didn’t do all the things we were doing in the first half.”