February 17, 2010 8:37:00 AM
David Miller -
STARKVILLE -- The University of Kentucky men''s basketball team found a way to close at the end.
It should be expected from the No. 2 team in the country, but the Wildcats had to grind for it.
The nip-tuck match saw Kentucky mow down a seven-point hole to force overtime, where it clinched the foul-ridden match -- 45 in all -- 81-75.
In front of a record crowd of 10,788 at Humphrey Coliseum, Mississippi State popped tags with black and maroon uniforms and in a pulsating game was on the brink of pulling an NCAA tournament-worthy upset.
All those stars, all the notoriety, all the hype -- it was going to take a thorough performance to take down the Wildcats.
For majority of the game, though, the Bulldogs were right there.
MSU trailed 32-29 deficit at halftime and never fell behind by more than six points. Point guard Dee Bost matched UK counterpart John Wall and finished with a game-high 22 points.
Wall went 6 of 16 from the floor and had 18 points, 10 rebounds, and eight assists, while teammates DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson each went for 19 points.
Despite MSU coach Rick Stansbury bucking the current trend of teams running zone defense against the Wildcats and opting to man up, Kentucky (25-1, 10-1 Southeastern Conference) closed the game and escaped an upset loss on national television.
MSU (18-8, 6-5) had its chances to lock up the win after going up 67-60 with three minutes left in regulation, but it went cold the rest of the half and watched UK finish regulation on a 7-0 run before locking it up in overtime.
"We kind of reached out and grabbed one," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "I told them (UK players) ''This is going to be a great comeback for television.''"
Stansbury lamented the effects of star center Jarvis Varnado fouling out and Ravern Johnson being relegated to a game-long spot on the team''s bench due to "attitude detrimental to the team." However, the coach took pride in the gritty obstacles the Bulldogs overcame to be in a position to win the game.
Also, the bench he''d pleaded with for more production and quality minutes turned in 61 minutes.
But most of that was through Phil Turner and Riley Benock, and things got tougher when Varnado became a non-factor.
The start of the second half had all the makings of an MSU meltdown when Varnado picked up three personal fouls just two minutes in.
With four fouls, MSU''s defensive anchor was forced to endure a long spell on the bench. He fouled out with five minutes remaining.
"I just couldn''t stay on the floor. (Kentucky) did a good job taking me out of the game," Varnado said. "They were so quick and my fourth foul was kind of suspect. He said I held him, but I don''t know."
Varnado''s exit with 5 minutes, 8 seconds left in regulation came after the Wooden All-America candidate converted a hard-earned and-one play and cleaned up a miss to give MSU a 61-58 lead.
UK was already hammering MSU on the glass, and Varnado''s exit magnified the gap even greater. The Wildcats finished with a plus-17 rebounding margin.
Cousins was glad to see Varnado go after the Bulldogs ran pick-and-rolls at the Wildcats instead of settling for the deep ball.
"(Varnado) is an incredible player. He makes things happen for them, and when he was out of the game, it made things a lot easier," Cousins said.
With Johnson banished to the bench and Varnado held to 23 minutes, the Bulldogs rallied around their backcourt and league-leading defense to take a 42-38 lead and force Calipari to call a timeout early in the second half.
At that point, the Wildcats were shooting 35.1 percent from the floor and found their star big man Cousins in foul trouble after the freshman picked up his third personal seconds after Varnado went to the bench with his fourth.
The Wildcats didn''t falter, however, as they built a 54-51 lead when Cousins re-entered and followed a pair of shots.
Leading 67-60 with three minutes left, the Bulldogs came up empty on four consecutive trips, while Kentucky scored on three of four, including Patrick Patterson''s 15-foot jumper to tie the game at 67.
Stansbury knew his team was starting to wear down.
"We did it without Jarvis and Ravern Johnson, our two leading scorers. We had plenty of opportunities, though," Stansbury said. "We were up 67-60 with three minutes to go and had four empty possessions. Coming down the stretch in the last five minutes of regulation and the five minutes of overtime we just didn''t have the subs. We played Kodi (Augustus) and Romero (Osby) extended in situations they hadn''t been in."
Barry Stewart had the Bulldogs'' final shot in regulation, but his 3-pointer fell short of the rim.
Stansbury said the play was a pick and roll with Osby, who was supposed to receive the ball on a hard cut to the basket.
Augustus went 4 of 7 from behind the arc and finished with 17 points, while Stewart ended with 16 and five steals.
The Bulldogs return to the court Saturday at LSU, while Kentucky travels to Vanderbilt for a Top-25 matchup.
n NOTES: Stansbury said Johnson could return to the lineup Saturday if "he does everything we are asking of him." MSU sports information director Gregg Ellis said before the game that Cousins will be asked to provide the phone numbers from the harassing phone calls and text messages he received this week from MSU fans. If any of the numbers belong to MSU students, they will be referred to the dean of students.