LEXINGTON — It took the Kentucky Wildcats one half to shake off the rust, but once they did, the hosts surged to an 85-63 win over the Mississippi State Bulldogs Wednesday night in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
Kentucky improved to 11-3 overall, while the game, but outmanned Bulldogs fell to 10-4.
Mississippi State coach Rick Ray had his Bulldogs bring three defenders down on UK star Julius Randle when Randle got the ball in the paint, and that worked for a half, leading to a 40-37 MSU lead at the break.
But in the second half, the Wildcats appeared to get into a rhythm, and they rode outstanding performances from several players to a 48-23 margin over the final 20 minutes.
“I don’t think we were lethargic, I think we were rusty,” said Kentucky assistant coach John Robic, who spoke for John Calipari afterward.
Calipari had to go to a local hospital to look in on his son, Brad, who had surgery Tuesday to repair a torn ACL.
“We had 13 days, so even the players were like, ‘We finally get to play a game,”’ said Robic, whose 14th-ranked Wildcats had not played since a Dec. 28 win over Louisville. “We were in game shape, but we were not ready for the game when it started. It took us some time.”
The beefy Randle, who is 6-foot-9, 250-pounds, , was limited to a pedestrian eight points, though he still managed to pull down an oh-by-the-way 14 rebounds, leading UK to a 44-28 edge on the glass.
Freshman swingman James Young took up much of the slack, in fact, largely keeping Kentucky close through the first 20 minutes.
Young finished with 26 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals and a blocked shot in 35 minutes — showing increasing signs of blossoming into a star.
Young hit 8 of 18 from the field and 7 of 9 at the free throw line.
“James Young was terrific,” Robic said. “I can’t think of any of his 18 shots that were bad or forced shots. James is a scorer. He’s one of the better shooters, and he’s just a slasher scorer. And we needed those baskets.
“The thing that sticks out to me, though, is 10 rebounds and five assists. He played a complete game.”
“It was just a good game,” Young said. “I practiced really hard, got a lot of shots on the floor before the game, and it carried over.”
The Wildcats also did a much better job in transition on both offense and defense as the game wore on, and started to successfully score down low in the second half.
Kentucky shot 37 percent from the field in the first half and 65 percent in the second.
Sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein and sophomore forward Alex Poythress tallied 12 points and four rebounds each.
Freshman center Dakari Johnson came off the bench and provided some punch inside, adding eight points on four of four shooting.
“We got the ball where we wanted to in the second half,” Robic said. “We were getting pushed off the block when we didn’t have to be pushed off the block. The person that did the best job was Dakari. He got the ball with two hands and was forceful once he caught the ball. This was a big game for him and his confidence.”
“It felt great,” Johnson said. “Being able to get in the game and make an impact felt really good.”
All parties involved raved about the impact of the 6-8 Poythress, who’s showing a consistency in both effort and production that fans did not see a year ago.
“He’s playing very, very well,” Robic said of Poythress. “His confidence level should be at an all time high. He’s bringing an energy. He’s doing the things he can do.”
“I’m just trying to bring some energy and just play,” said Poythress, which is all Calipari and company have asked him to do since he arrived at Kentucky.
Mississippi State came into play with only eight scholarship players, and only three legitimate big men, so Wednesday’s result was inevitable.
Still, the Bulldogs hung on into the middle stages of the second half. The Wildcats didn’t put the game away until a 20-2 run midway through the final 20 minutes that extended a 54-51 margin to 74-53 with 6:09 to go.
“We just don’t have enough bodies,” MSU’s Ray said. “We’ve got guys out there who are tired and winded. I always say this: Every player says they want to play 35 minutes a game, and then when they play 35 minutes, they simply can’t do it.”
Sophomore guard Craig Sword led Mississippi State in scoring with 19 points, and 6-9 sophomore forward Gavin Ware led in rebounding with 10 boards.
Kentucky plays 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Vanderbilt , a game that will be televised on CBS .
The Wildcats are at Arkansas Tuesday night (9 p.m. on ESPN), and return home Jan. 18 to play Tennessee at noon.