By Will Graves/The Associated Press
LEXINGTON, Ky. — Brandon Knight scored 24 points, Doron Lamb added 20 in his first start in nearly as month as No. 22 Kentucky held off Mississippi State 85-79 on Tuesday night.
The Wildcats (18-7, 6-5 Southeastern Conference) bounced back from another late-game road meltdown against Vanderbilt with some of their finest offensive play of the season.
Kentucky shot 56 percent from the floor, including 67 percent in the second half, to improve to 30-0 at Rupp Arena under coach John Calipari. The Wildcats trailed by 11 early before a pair of big second-half runs sent the Bulldogs (13-12, 5-6) to their second straight loss.
Ravern Johnson led Mississippi State with 21 points and Jalen Steele added a career-high 17 but the Bulldogs couldn’t keep up when the Wildcats started pushing the pace.
Calipari watched Mississippi State have its way for the game’s first 25 minutes before deciding to pick up fullcourt pressure, challenging his players despite the team’s decidedly short bench.
The Wildcats took the lead for good during an 11-0 burst early in the second half fueled by some sloppy ballhandling by the Bulldogs. Terrence Jones got Kentucky going with a layup then put together a pair of steals on Mississippi State’s next two possessions, leading to easy baskets at the other end of the floor.
The lead grew to 58-50 before the Bulldogs snapped out of it, getting within 65-63 before another surge by the Wildcats pushed the margin to 83-70 with 3:49 to play.
Kentucky, as it has done all season, struggled to put it away. A series of turnovers and missed shots helped Mississippi State get as close as 83-79 with 49 seconds remaining before Kentucky could finish the Bulldogs off.
Lamb started in place of Darius Miller, who was questionable after being hurt against the Commodores. Calipari has repeatedly asked Lamb to play with more energy, and he responded with his best performance since dropping 32 in a victory over Winthrop in December.
Lamb knocked down 7 of 8 shots, including all three of his 3-pointers while winning a game-long duel with Mississippi State’s Dee Bost. Bost finished with 16 points but it was Lamb who had the flair for the dramatic. He drilled a couple of big jumpers in the second half to help give Kentucky some breathing room, holding three fingers over his right eye after both shots.
It was the kind of chippy atmosphere expected from what has become an increasingly fractious rivalry.
The two teams fought a pair of classics last season, with Kentucky prevailing in taut affairs, including an overtime win in the SEC title game.
The stakes weren’t quite so high this time, but for a Kentucky team exposed on the road — where the Wildcats are just 1-5 in conference — the victory was nearly as important.
Miller looked just fine when he saw the floor, finishing with 13 points. Terrence Jones had 17 points and 10 rebounds and senior center Josh Harrellson held his own with Mississippi State sophomore forward Renardo Sidney.
Harrellson had nine points and six rebounds compared to 11 points and eight boards for Sidney, who was completely gassed at times and failed to shine in front of more than a dozen NBA scouts on hand.
Mississippi State controlled large portions of the first half, taking an 11-point lead at one point, the second-largest advantage taken by an opponent in Rupp Arena this year.
Yet the Bulldogs didn’t seem comfortable with success. They stopped going inside despite getting to the bucket or drawing a foul with regularity early in the game, opting for a couple of ill-advised 3-pointers, including a brick from Sidney.
Kentucky eventually found its footing behind the play of Jones and Knight, getting within 40-39 at the break following a bizarre sequence just before the horn.
Knight was fouled by Mississippi State’s Brian Bryant just as he crossed halfcourt. Knight flung the ball forward when he drew the contact and the referees ruled he was in the act of shooting with 1.1 seconds left on the clock.
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury went ballistic, drawing a warning then a technical foul for good measure. Knight made 4 of 5 at the line to give the Wildcats a momentum boost heading into the break.
Read more in Wednesday’s NEMS Daily Journal newspaper.