By Gary Graves/The Associated Press
LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) — On the verge of being forgotten two weeks ago, Kentucky point guard Ryan Harrow now has control of his role and game.
The same can be said for the Wildcats’ resurgent Southeastern Conference and NCAA tournament prospects, much stronger after looking done not long ago.
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.
The game was the latest upswing in a seesaw season for Harrow, who missed four games early because of an illness and a family matter he had to tend to in Georgia. He returned and eventually reclaimed his position before being replaced by Jarrod Polson against Tennessee on Feb. 16, a 30-point loss in Kentucky’s first game without injured center Nerlens Noel.
That low point seems distant for the Wildcats and Harrow, who asked for his job back and has averaged 15.7 points during the winning streak.
“My confidence is really good right now, really high,” said Harrow, who added seven rebounds and four assists. “I’m just playing a lot better offensively and defensively. I’m starting to do more things on the court, so it’s making me feel a lot better.”
Other Wildcats have reason to feel good as well.
Alex Poythress added 16 points and eight rebounds, Willie Cauley-Stein 12 with six rebounds and three blocks while Julius Mays and Archie Goodwin had 11 points each as Kentucky (20-8, 11-4) pulled within a game of first-place Florida with two games remaining. The Wildcats also improved to 3-1 since 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 their most lopsided SEC win this season.
They shot 34 of 62 from the field (55 percent), outrebounded Mississippi State 42-29 and outscored the Bulldogs 46-18 in the paint.
“It’s just a fun game,” Cauley-Stein said of the rout. “We just went through a lot of tough games in the last three or four games. … It’s just a lot of fun for our team, just trying to get ourselves back into a good rhythm.”
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 that eventually hit 35 with 2 minutes left. The Bulldogs made just 18 of 56 from the field (32 percent), including 6 of 24 from 3-point range.
“I thought we did a fairly good job of continuing to compete,” Bulldogs coach Rick Ray said.
“I think we are getting some good looks out there at times, we just simply don’t knock them down. The one thing we have to figure out as a team is just self-evaluation. We continually take more 3s than any other team, but yet we are the worst shooting team in the SEC.”
Kentucky meanwhile was 9 of 22 from beyond the arc on a night that included members of its 1996 championship team receiving specially designed school rings to go along with the NCAA-issued jewelry awarded 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 went on to post its third straight game shooting 50 percent or better, with contributions from all over the roster.
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 besides Harrow, with Goodwin playing more controlled and fifth-year senior Mays assuming the leadership role.
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 in leading 42-19 at the break.
Hood made the most of his 8 early minutes, scoring five points and grabbing three rebounds. Polson finished with nine points, adding to a night that didn’t seem possible not long ago.
“I thought we went forward,” coach John Calipari said. “I mean, you have five guys in double figures.”