LEXINGTON, Ky. — Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury shook his head a little bit while looking at the stat sheet, marveling at how the undersized Bulldogs dominated Kentucky 66-57 on Tuesday night.
“We probably played better than we are,” Stansbury said.
Maybe Stansbury is underestimating his quickly improving club.
Phil Turner scored a career-high 18 points and all four of Mississippi State’s starting guards reached double figures as the Bulldogs (15-7, 5-2 SEC) won at Rupp Arena for the first time in 14 years. Ravern Johnson added 17 points, Barry Stewart had 13 and Dee Bost had 10 points and four assists for Mississippi State.
“We’ve brought some pretty good teams in here and lost, a lot of good teams come in here and lose,” Stansbury said.
The Bulldogs might not be good — not yet — but they were more than good enough to beat the suddenly reeling Wildcats. Kentucky (16-7, 5-3) has lost three straight after briefly cracking the Top 25 a week ago.
“Our situation is everybody has to play better,” Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said.
Including, incredibly, stars Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson. Meeks managed just 15 points — 10 below his season average — before leaving late in the second half with a broken tooth. Patterson faced double and triple teams any time he touched the ball and finished with 15 points and nine boards.
“(Meeks) is a great player and (Patterson) is a great player,” Turner said. “We were just daring someone else to step up and beat us.”
Nobody did. While Patterson and Meeks combined to shoot 12 of 27 from the floor (44 percent), the rest of the team made just 9 of 32 (28 percent) field goals.
“We haven’t played like we did early in the season and (in) the SEC,” Patterson said. “We are starting to lose that type of swagger and that type of mentality and attitude that we had earlier. We just have to turn it all around.”
Trying to find a way over, around or through Mississippi State center Jarvis Varnado may have had to do with Kentucky’s struggles. Varnado shook off a foul-plagued first half to finish with six points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks.
“He was huge in the second half,” Stansbury said.
So were the rest of the Bulldogs, who never trailed and responded whenever the Wildcats threatened to get back in it.
Kentucky trailed by as much as 13 before pulling within 45-42 on a dunk by Perry Stevenson with more than 10 minutes left. Varnado responded with a dunk off a nifty feed from Bost. The teams exchanged 3s before Bost hit a layup and followed with a deep 3-pointer to push the lead to 55-45 with 5:45 remaining.
The Wildcats came up empty on their next two possessions. Turner and Johnson drilled two more 3-pointers to push the lead to 61-45 with 3:05 to play to send the fans streaming into the chilly February night.
“It’s a really big win,” Johnson said. “Not too many people come into Rupp and beat Kentucky.”
The Bulldogs hadn’t done it since 1995, but pulled off their third straight win over the Wildcats by making 14-of-27 3-pointers, more than overcoming a distinct size disadvantage.
The 6-foot-1 Turner, matched up with the 6-9 Stevenson for most of the night, more than held his own.
Turner grabbed eight rebounds, two more than Stevenson, and had little trouble getting his jumper over Stevenson’s outstretched hands. Whenever Stevenson would take another step out to guard him, Turner would take one more step back and knock it down.
“You’re not going to win that war that often,” Stansbury said. “We were just trying to neutralize him. But if you’re going to play small, you’ve got to win the war, and I thought we won the war playing small.”
Mississippi State reserve forwards Brian Johnson and Elgin Bailey returned from a one-game suspension for curfew violations, but did little to give Varnado any help, combining for one rebound and three missed shots.
Not that Varnado needed help patrolling the lane. Using his massive wingspan to get his hands on anything that came into the lane, Varnado was all the inside presence the Bulldogs needed.
Yet Mississippi State proved it’s more than just the stringy Varnado.
The Bulldogs took control late in the first half with their center watching from the bench after picking up his second foul. Mississippi State finished the half with a 14-5 run punctuated by four 3-pointers, including back-to-back 3s by Johnson that had the Wildcats well on their way to a third straight loss.