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February 27, 2013

Cats maintain momentum in battering Bulldogs

It's been 15 days since Nerlens Noel's knee broke down, and 11 since it seemed like Kentucky's basketball season might do the same thing.

But less than two weeks after a crushing loss at Tennessee, the Wildcats powered past outmanned Mississippi State 85-55 at Rupp Arena on Wednesday for their third straight win and a team that looked all but buried suddenly is showing signs of life.

"What this team has been through, what we've had to do to adjust to all the things happening around us," coach John Calipari said. "We had dirt thrown on us 10 days ago. The coffin was nailed shut and the dirt was thrown on us.

Now Kentucky (20-8, 11-4 Southeastern Conference) suddenly is surging. With four games left, the Wildcats have a mathematical chance to win the SEC regular-season title.

"And they're feeling good about themselves," Calipari said. "They should. I'm proud of them."

There was plenty to be proud of on Wednesday, with the Cats making quick work of Mississippi State (7-20, 2-13), which came into the night with six available scholarship players and left with its 13th straight loss.

UK outscored the Bulldogs 42-19 in the first half, holding the Bulldogs to 23.3 percent shooting in the first 20 minutes. From there, the Cats put it in cruise control, leading by as many as 35 points in a game that never was competitive.

Kentucky has overcome some adversity, but Bulldogs coach Rick Ray would take the kind Calipari's dealing with.

"I understand that Kentucky has had some problems with injuries and they probably lost the No. 1 draft pick in the nation in Nerlens Noel," Ray said. "But when you want to start comparing, like, trials and tribulations, we win all day long."

True, Mississippi State has been decimated by injuries and suspension.

But Calipari credited his Cats for battling through their own difficulties. Point guard Ryan Harrow missed time at the beginning of the season and now appears to be working his way out of a slump, scoring a game-high 19 points on Wednesday to go with seven rebounds and four assists.

Since Noel was injured in a 69-52 loss at Florida, the Wildcats have lost 88-58 at Tennessee, shaken off the hangover of that game to hold off Vanderbilt 74-70, won a critical overtime game against Missouri 90-83 and routed Mississippi State.

"We're always going to have that empty feeling," said forward Willie Cauley-Stein, who had 12 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots against the Bulldogs. "We're just coming together as a team now, and guys will start to listen to what Coach has got to say. It's falling into place."

As it has, the Cats have climbed to second place in the SEC standings, a game back of first-place Florida.

"I mean, it's (been) an emotional rollercoaster," Cauley-Stein said. "Now it's time to flatline it and start climbing for the next three games and then the SEC Tournament and then the NCAA Tournament, too. Just got to start taking care of business."

That means taking this home show on the road. The Wildcats' three-game winning streak has all come at Rupp Arena. This weekend, they travel to Arkansas for a pivotal Saturday game against the Razorbacks, who are 16-1 at home this season.

If Kentucky can win there and at Georgia next Thursday, it could have a chance to play for the SEC title on March 9, when Florida visits.

And after this two-week stretch, that's saying something.

"Everybody's just really happy and working hard and more focused," Harrow said. "Coach always says we have our own destiny in our hands. I think we're really taking notice to that and trying to keep our coffin open, as Coach Cal would say."


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