Kentucky wins 21st straight SEC game
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- This must be a familiar scene across the SEC.
The Wildcats walk out of the arena, heads high, another team left in their trail.
Meanwhile, coaches sit in their offices -- or in their hotel rooms -- trying to figure out how they got beaten again by Kentucky.
Tuesday night, it was Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury's turn to relive the pain. An hour after the final buzzer Tuesday night, he had assistant Phil Cunningham pop the game tape into the VCR.
The coaching staff had to watch the final few possessions to see whether this really happened.
Stansbury, in self-inflicted pain, watched and paused the tape of the final minute at least four times. He wanted to see how previously undefeated Mississippi State lost what was easily the biggest game in the past two seasons here.
Because Kentucky only makes an appearance in Starkville every other season, the loss was even more agonizing. Stansbury knew the Bulldogs had their chances: They just couldn't convert two separate front ends of one-and-one free throws, tap away a loose ball that ended up being possession Kentucky or swat away an inbounds pass. Instead, a pass from Cliff Hawkins to Erik Daniels beat Lawrence Roberts and Mississippi State 67-66 at a sold-out, student-rockin' Hump.
"They've got three four-year seniors that have been in a lot of big basketball games," said Stansbury, his feet propped up on his desk, his weary assistants sitting scattered around his office while a pile of fried chicken grew cold, untouched in a cardboard box.
"They have a lot of poise," Stansbury said. "They expect to win. They get the bounces. Hawkins couldn't see over Branden (Vincent). That (pass) maybe works once in a thousand times. But it worked that time. They put themselves in a position to win. Some teams would have thrown the ball away. They're smart enough, intelligent enough. Somehow Hawkins threw the ball over Branden Vincent. It's pretty clever how he did it."
This is getting downright absurd. Somehow, this can't be happening again, can it?
Can Kentucky, which won all 19 conference games last season, actually run through the SEC unblemished again?
With two wins this year, the streak is 21 ... and counting.
Sure, Kentucky still has to go to Vanderbilt (Jan. 31), has two games with Florida (in Gainesville Feb. 3, in Lexington March 7), and must visit LSU (Feb. 29). But, after Tuesday night, why not?
The Wildcats beat Mississippi State when everything was going the Bulldogs' way in the final minute. Mississippi State had come back from 16 down to take the lead with 1:56 left and again with 59 seconds remaining. Then the Bulldogs missed two front ends of one-and-one opportunities. They failed to get a loose ball that ended up being a jump ball and possession to Kentucky with three seconds remaining.
Still, Hawkins looked as though he didn't have a sight line to get the ball to Daniels on an inbounds pass because of Vincent being in his face. Hawkins lobbed the ball high; Roberts deflected it; and Daniels caught the ball and laid it in at the buzzer for the win.
"It's amazing," said Kentucky assistant David Hobbs, who has been in the SEC since 1985 as an assistant and head coach at Alabama as well as an assistant with the 'Cats. "The funny thing is it's not like we've got a superstar team. We do what we need to do on defense. We make plays. It's hard to explain, though.
"Everything was going in their favor at the end, the crowd, everything ... When will it end? I don't know. It's unfathomable to think we could do it again. Kentucky fans think we will or should do it again. You don't think something like this would happen again."
Kentucky ran through the SEC undefeated in 1956. The Wildcats did it again in 1996, but those 'Cats lost to Mississippi State in the conference tournament. These 'Cats are on quite a roll, sweeping the regular season and conference tournament last season and the first two games this season. The last loss to an SEC team was to South Carolina on March 8, 2002, in the SEC tournament. The last regular-season SEC loss was at Vanderbilt on Feb. 27, 2002.
And don't start comparing this group of 'Cats to Rick Pitino's in talent. It's not even close. The only player from the '02-03 season in the NBA is Keith Bogans. The 'Cats might not have a player on this team who will be in the NBA in the next two seasons, let alone get drafted.
"The streak?" Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said. "I haven't paid much attention to it. But it's been about the way they've responded."
But 21 in a row ...
"That's pretty impressive," Smith said before a question was about to be asked. "I'm impressed with these guys."
Kansas went through the Big 12 undefeated in 2001-02, but the Jayhawks lost to Oklahoma in the conference tourney title game. Any unblemished regular season in all but unheard of in one of the top conferences. Kentucky's run last season was remarkable. Duplicating it would be amazing.
"It's an unbelievable streak, a miraculous streak," said Mississippi State's Shane Power, who transferred from the Iowa State in the Big 12. "When you're good, you get lucky a bit, but Kentucky doesn't beat itself. You've got to take the game from them, and we had a couple of opportunities to make free throws and get loose balls. They took the game from us down the stretch."
Yes, when Bernard Cote made a 3-pointer that hit the back of the rim, went high and then dropped, it looked as though Kentucky was in for another one of those nights. But this win wasn't just about lucky bounces. Kentucky's swarming defense doubled on Roberts in the first half and pressured senior guard Timmy Bowers and Gary Ervin in the halfcourt, forcing the Bulldogs into 10 first-half turnovers and 20 overall.
And Kentucky's sharp 3-point shooting (5-of-9 for Gerald Fitch) wasn't a fluke. Neither was a midrange jumper by Kelenna Azubuike that gave Kentucky a one-point lead with 1:32 left after he had missed four of his first five shots.
"I'm not amazed by it because they're a great team and they expect to win," Bowers said. "They haven't lost in two years in this league because they have the will to win. They play hard and all have total confidence in their teammates."
Could Kentucky go undefeated again in the SEC?
"It's unheard of," Bowers said.
Added Roberts, "It takes a great team to do that."
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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