By Gary Graves/The Associated Press
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Ryan Harrow’s 19 points led Kentucky as every starter reached double figures, and the Wildcats dominated outmanned Mississippi State for an 85-55 victory Wednesday night, the Wildcats’ third in a row.
Alex Poythress added 16 points, Willie Cauley-Stein 12 and Julius Mays and Archie Goodwin 11 each as Kentucky (20-8, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) pulled within a game of first-place Florida with two games remaining. The Wildcats also improved to 3-1 since freshman center Nerlens Noel’s season-ending knee injury on Feb. 12.
Kentucky had to be careful not to overlook a Mississippi State team that entered with a 12-game losing streak and just eight healthy players. The Wildcats easily avoided that trap, leading from the outset and steadily pulling away for its most lopsided SEC win this season.
They shot 34 of 62 from the field (55 percent) and outrebounded Mississippi State 42-29. Poythress had eight rebounds, Harrow seven.
Fred Thomas’ 13 points led the Bulldogs (7-20, 2-13). Colin Borchert and Jalen Steele each added 10.
Wednesday marked another hard night for the Bulldogs, whose 72-31 loss at home to Vanderbilt on Saturday was actually their second-largest margin of defeat during the losing streak. — Missouri hung a 78-36 pasting on them two weeks ago.
Mississippi State’s only consolation was topping that point total early in the second half, but by then Kentucky was heading toward a 30-point lead. The Bulldogs made just 18 of 56 from the field (32 percent), including 6 of 24 from 3-point range.
Kentucky’s big night included members of its 1996 championship team receiving specially-designed school rings to go along with the NCAA-issued jewelry after they won their sixth title. Sandwiched around that halftime ceremony were two halves in which the Wildcats maintained their momentum from Saturday’s overtime victory against Missouri by extending their modest winning streak.
Kentucky has recently raised the bar on its play, shooting at least 50 percent against both Vanderbilt and Missouri with contributions from all over the roster. That trend continued Wednesday night for the Wildcats.
Cauley-Stein has been the most notable emergence, becoming the post force the Wildcats needed after Noel tore his anterior cruciate ligament against Florida.
The 7-footer is the reigning SEC Freshman of the Week after averaging 13.5 points and 9.5 rebounds with 10 blocks last week, including seven against Missouri. Kentucky’s guard play has also improved, with sophomore Harrow re-establishing himself at the point, Goodwin playing more controlled and fifth-year senior Mays assuming the leadership role with 24 points against the Tigers.
That group plus reserves Jon Hood and Jarrod Polson helped stake Kentucky to a 26-10 lead after 12 minutes, a start built on 10-of-17 shooting and defense that forced Mississippi State to rush shots and mishandle the ball. The matchup between Cauley-Stein and 6-9 Gavin Ware was interesting — finding all paths blocked by the 7-footer, the smaller forward was left launching attempts that were often off-balance and off the mark.
Ware was just 2 of 7 from the field in the first half and Mississippi State hit just 7 of 30 (23 percent) by halftime. The Bulldogs were also outrebounded 23-13, and Kentucky took full advantage.
Poythress’ 13 first-half points led Kentucky, which made 18 of 31 from the field (58 percent) and outscored Mississippi State 28-10 in the paint. Hood made the most of his 8 early minutes, scoring five points and grabbing three rebounds.