February 22, 2012 8:57:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- Three words were all Michael Kidd-Gilchrist needed to say to his coach when given the assignment of Dee Bost at halftime.
"I said you got him and he said, 'I got it,' " University of Kentucky men's basketball coach John Calipari said.
Kidd-Gilchrist's defensive performance was part of a second-half effort that helped top-ranked Kentucky rally and pull away for a 73-64 victory against Mississippi State University on Tuesday before an announced crowd of 10,213 at Humphrey Coliseum.
After trailing 41-28 at halftime, Kentucky (27-1, 13-0 Southeastern Conference) showed why 63 of the 65 Associated Press voters believe it is the best team in the country. The Wildcats showcased their versatility by moving Kidd-Gilchrist, a 6-foot-7 freshman swingman, to guard Bost, MSU's 6-3 senior point guard, who had 16 of his game-high 21 points in the first half. Kidd-Gilchrist and senior guard Darius Miller also had 12 points apiece in the final 20 minutes to help Kentucky earn its 19th-straight victory.
In similar fashion to its win in 2010 in Starkville, Kentucky erased another deficit by finishing the game on a 20-4 run. Two years ago, then-No. 2 Kentucky rallied from a seven-point deficit to force overtime and went on to a win against a MSU team on the bubble for the NCAA tournament.
With 4 minutes, 53 seconds left in the first half Tuesday, MSU had the momentum before freshman wing player Rodney Hood crumpled to the court and was unable to get up. The 2011 Gatorade Player of the Year in the state of Mississippi had to be helped off the floor and didn't return with what school officials announced was a left knee bruise.
"A huge, huge, huge blow for us," MSU coach Rick Stansbury said. "They wasn't going to cancel the game, but when we lose one of our key guys with our lack of depth was huge for us. Absolutely huge for us."
Hood is expected to undergo medical tests today, but the significance of the injury and his status will be determined later this week.
Riding the emotional lift from the home atmosphere and the 16 first-half points from Bost, MSU (19-9, 6-7) put Kentucky in its biggest hole of the season when it led by 13 at halftime.
"That first 20 minutes we were about as good as you can be (on) both ends," Stansbury said. "Defensively, we controlled the game, and offensively, we were so precise."
Calipari admitted after the game he and his staff expected the deficit would've been much larger.
"We should've been down 20 with the way we played and the way they played in the first half," Calipari said.
Kentucky then rectified the situation thanks to its McDonald's All-American from New Jersey. Kidd-Gilchrist exerted his will on offense and defense, scoring 12 points and holding Bost to one field goal in the final 20 minutes.
"I love that challenge," Kidd-Gilchrist said. "I love playing defense, and that's just my game right there."
Kentucky has relied on Kidd-Gilchrist to guard an opponent's toughest matchup this season. Calipari regretted not having Kidd-Gilchrist on Bost matchup at the tip.
"I made a mistake not doing it," Calipari said. "I wanted to try and press early and I didn't want Mike on the wrong guy because he's the head of our press."
Bost struggled to find open driving lanes and uncontested perimeter looks against the longer Kidd-Gilchrist. His struggles were similar to the ones he experienced when Terrance Henry, a 6-9 forward, guarded him in a 75-68 loss at the University of Mississippi.
"He was long and athletic, so that kind of bothered me a little bit," Bost said. "At the same time, we got the ball where we wanted it but we just didn't knock down shots."
On the offense, Kidd-Gilchrist used his physical advantage on the undersized combination of guards Brian Bryant and Jalen Steele to score close to the bucket.
"(The injury to Hood) is huge because we have to play a guy that physically can't guard Gilchrist and just hasn't played that (small forward) spot," Stansbury said.
Stansbury admitted he'll go home from the Bulldogs' fourth straight defeat not knowing what would've happened if he'd had Hood for 40 minutes.
"We'll never the total effect of all that, but you take a guy like Rodney Hood out of that mixture and it's really, really tough for you," Stansbury said. "You can always point to things in a game like this, and when you play Kentucky things are always magnified."
MSU will play at the University of Alabama at 5 p.m. Saturday. The Bulldogs haven't won in Tuscaloosa, Ala., since 2008.