STARKVILLE, Miss. (AP) -These kids from Kentucky are growing up fast.
The second-ranked Wildcats showed they learned their lessons from their only loss of the season and got a preview of the intensity of postseason basketball, beating Mississippi State 81-75 in overtime on Tuesday night in one of college basketball's most hostile arenas.
``This is probably one of the toughest places we've done played this year,' said center DeMarcus Cousins, one of three freshmen starters for Kentucky. ``It was intense from start to finish. If this is what the NCAA tournament is going to be like, it's going to be a tough road.'
Freshman John Wall scored 18 points, including five in overtime, and came within two assists of a triple-double to lead the Wildcats (25-1, 10-1 Southeastern Conference) back from seven points down with 3 minutes to play against the shorthanded Bulldogs (18-8, 6-5).
It was the sixth straight win for Kentucky since losing at South Carolina and came in front of a record crowd of 10,788. The final minute of the game was marred when fans in the student section threw plastic water bottles onto the court, almost hitting official Mike Kitts and coming close to Wall as he stood near the Kentucky bench.
``We made plays. We made shots. We made blocks. We did enough to win the game and now we're going to get out of here,' Kentucky coach John Calipari said, adding that it ``was probably 15 fans in the whole building.'
On Feb. 3, several objects were thrown on the court after West Virginia's home victory over Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh assistant coach Tom Herrion was struck in the face with a coin and West Virginia president Jim Clements apologized to the University of Pittsburgh, saying he was ``appalled and embarrassed.'
Kentucky held Mississippi State without a point for 4 1/2 minutes at the end of regulation and the start of overtime, taking advantage of the absence of suspended leading scorer Ravern Johnson and shot-blocking defensive specialist Jarvis Varnado, who played about 5 minutes after halftime because of foul trouble. His third and fourth fouls came in a span of 5 seconds early in the second half.
``They came quick,' said the nation's No. 2 shot blocker. ``My fourth foul was kind of suspect.'
Cousins and Patrick Patterson took advantage of Varnado's absence. Both scored 19 points and made key plays as the Mississippi State center watched from the bench.
Cousins had 12 points and nine rebounds after halftime and Patterson capped the comeback with a 15-foot baseline jumper to tie it at 72, a shot he might not have made last season.
``We all thought he may not be able to do well outside the paint,' Wall said. ``But he worked hard and added that to his game this summer.'
Cousins, playing with four fouls, dominated the middle in overtime. He grabbed two offensive rebounds that led to a putback and was a domineering presence as Mississippi State tried to rally with drives in the final minutes.
He had 14 rebounds to record his first double-double since his streak of seven straight doubles ended Saturday, when he had just five points. The Wildcats outrebounded Mississippi State 52-35.
``He is an incredible player,' Cousins said of Varnado. ``He makes things happen for them and when he was out of the game it made things a lot easier.'
Mississippi State used a 13-2 run to take its biggest lead, 67-60, with 3 minutes left. Varnado fouled out midway through the run at 5:08, but that didn't seem to slow down the Bulldogs. They outscored the Wildcats 6-2 over the next 2 minutes before Kentucky clamped down.
DeAndre Liggins hit a 3-pointer, then Cousins turned a block of Romero Osby into a layup in transition before Patterson tied it at 72.
Mississippi State's Barry Stewart missed the rim on a 3-point attempt as the shot clock expired with 6.2 seconds left and Liggins' jump shot from the baseline as time expired bounced off the rim.
The Bulldogs tied it at 70 on Stewart's 3-pointer and at 72 on a leaning layup from Osby. But from there, it was all Wall, who had 10 rebounds, eight assists, three steals, two blocks and just three turnovers.
He wasn't a huge factor in the second half, but he was the difference in overtime. He beat Stewart for a three-point play, then hit one of two free throws in two trips to the line to give the Wildcats a 78-75 lead and just enough cushion for the win.
Dee Bost, who led Mississippi State with 22 points, had a chance at a layup to cut the lead to one, but he lost the ball in traffic.
``We made the plays we had to make,' Calipari said. ``It's hard to win on the road anywhere in college basketball.'
The Associated Press News Service
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