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SEC tournament notebook: Mississippi State advances, while Kentucky exits

 Blake Lovell   in Basketball

(Southeastern Conference)

Mississippi State was one of the least talked about teams entering the SEC Tournament, mainly due to their opponent. 

But while a lot of attention was on Kentucky making an improbable run to capture an automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament, it was Ben Howland's team that earned the thrilling 74-73 victory to snap a 15-game losing streak against the Wildcats.

Iverson Molinar responded to being left off the All-SEC first- and second-teams by notching 21 points on 10-of-14 shooting from the field. Tolu Smith and Abdul Ado asserted their dominance in the paint, with Smith posting a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds, and Ado putting up 12 points and nine rebounds.

The duo of Smith and Ado helped Mississippi State control things in the frontcourt, with the Bulldogs winning the rebounding battle 46-30 and outscoring the Wildcats 46-22 in the paint.

"I thought Abdul in particular was fantastic," Howland said after the game. "Six baskets all in the first half, they were all on really good passes, dump-offs to him. He had a couple really nice moves, was very aggressive. I'm really, really proud of him for how he showed up today. He was a man out there. I thought Tolu was very good, nine points in the first half, got to the foul line, did some really good things for us. 

"It was the game plan to go at them inside for sure in that first half. I thought we did a great job on the glass. I think we were up 14 on the boards in the first half. We did a great job defensively in the first half."

As for Friday's quarterfinal matchup, the Bulldogs played Alabama tough in both regular season games. 

The Crimson Tide won 81-73 in Tuscaloosa back on Jan. 23, and followed that up with a 64-59 win in Starkville on Feb. 27 to clinch the SEC regular season title.

"We've got our hands full," Howland said. "We're going to have to have a similar effort as we had today to have a chance in that game to beat Alabama. They're really terrific. 

"I voted for all their players to get the awards. I thought (Jahvon) Quinerly deserved to be the Sixth Man of the Year. That's who I voted for. Herb (Jones) was the defensive player and MVP. He and John Petty are both first team. Obviously, voach Oats was the Coach of the Year. They have a great team. (Josh) Primo is an unbelievable freshman, who was all freshman. We're going to have to really rest up and recover here because we're playing the best team in our league next."

And then there's Kentucky.

While Dontaie Allen did his best to push the Wildcats into the next round, his 23 points and six 3-pointers in 29 minutes of play simply wasn't enough. Davion Mintz added 16, Olivier Sarr had 14, and Keion Brooks had 10.

With the loss, Kentucky finishes the season at 9-16. Yes, 9-16.

If you're thinking that's historically bad for a program of that caliber, you aren't alone. Here are the numbers, via Nathanael Rutherford on Twitter:

- Most losses in a season since going 13-19 in the 1988-89 season

- First time since that 1988-89 season that Kentucky has finished a season under .500

- First time since 1926-27 that UK hasn't won at least 10 games

So, yeah. This was a season to forget for John Calipari and his team. However, Calipari didn't want the overall record to be the focus after losing to Mississippi State.

"Let's just talk Mississippi State," Calipari said. "That's all I'm going to talk about because to really sit back and look at some things that went, guys that we thought, the corona. One of the things I'm proud of, we went five months with no positive tests on the staff or the team. Five months. That means the kids were disciplined. That means the university was doing what they were supposed to do to keep these kids safe, how we traveled, what they did. No expense was spared to make sure we did it the right way."

The Kentucky coach did offer a little more insight on the challenges of replacing nearly his entire roster last season and how that impacted the Wildcats in a season filled with unusual circumstances.

"Again, this is having a brand-new team without Keion, without Terrence (Clarke), trying to do this, then playing one of the best schedules in the country," he said. "Doesn't bode well for what was going on. You know what's sad? We were a couple wins away from being a team, even with a bad record, two or three wins, and you're right there with all the numbers that they're saying all these teams in the NCAA tournament. At end of the day you got to win games and you got to be tough and you got to play winning basketball, not just basketball. 

"I'm either going to get fouled or it's a shot I can make or a shot someone rebounds. Defensively I'm not breaking down and fouling and giving them a chance to beat us on the foul line. Ain't happening. That's not winning basketball. We were never able to get fully engaged in that. 

Even with the record, Calipari wasn't completely disappointed with what he saw from his new team this season.

"I'll say this, all these kids have been through, and they never stopped, they gave us an effort every night in practice, every game," Calipari said. "We were lacking and flawed in different ways as a team, but they fought. I would say disappointed in the record but not disappointed in these kids. Not disappointed in them. We weren't what we thought we could be at some different spots. We'll address that when the season's over, or when this winds down, I should say."

As usual, Kentucky figures to once again revamp its roster heading into the 2021-22 campaign.

The Wildcats have already signed three prized recruits in 5-star power forward Daimion Collins, 4-star power forward Bryce Hopkins, 4-star point guard Nolan Hickman, and Kentucky will also add impact transfer Oscar Tshiebwe from West Virginia.

With Calipari also likely to add more freshmen and transfers to the mix, the Wildcats should reload for a bounce-back season.

But for now, for the first time in the history of the SEC Tournament, Kentucky won't be playing in the quarterfinals.

Mississippi State will be, and it'll try to be the team that everyone is talking about by eliminating the squad that has, at least temporarily, replaced Kentucky at the top of the SEC basketball ladder.

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