STARKVILLE, Miss. – Freshman Kentucky forward Victoria Dunlap (Nashville, Tenn.) tallied 17 points, nine rebounds and four blocks, and senior guard Samantha Mahoney (Detroit) added 12 points Sunday as the Wildcats held off Mississippi State for a 64-60 win in Humphrey Coliseum.
The Wildcats (8-8, 2-0 Southeastern Conference) start league play 2-0 in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1981-82 and 1982-83. Head Coach Matthew Mitchell, a native of nearby Louisville, Miss., located just 29 miles from Starkville, became the first first-year coach in school history to begin the SEC schedule with two consecutive wins. Kentucky has now won four of its last five games and has defeated the Bulldogs (12-5, 0-2) in Starkville for the second consecutive time.
Dunlap went 7-of-8 from the floor with nine rebounds and a career-high four blocks to lead a strong effort by the Kentucky freshman class. Each of Dunlap’s nine rebounds came on the defensive end. Dunlap, freshman center Catina Bett (Gadsden, Ala.) and freshman point guard Amber Smith (Winter Haven, Fla.) combined for 36 points, 22 rebounds and nine blocks.
“Victoria was just tremendous for us today,” said Mitchell, a 1995 Mississippi State graduate. “I told our team that we did something today that is very difficult to do and that is to go on the road in the SEC and win. I thought that in stretches, we played as good in transition as we have all year. I think our younger players are really starting to play well and Sam [Mahoney] had a good game today as well. This is a great victory for the Wildcats and I am just really proud of them.”
The Wildcats shot 45.3 percent (24-of-53) from the floor in the game, marking the team’s best shooting performance since connecting on 51.7 percent of its shots vs. William & Mary on Dec. 4.
Kentucky, which led 41-32 with 16:55 to go in the game, watched Mississippi State use a 9-1 run over the next 4:47 to pull within one, 42-41. The Lady Bulldogs continued their rally to knot the score at 46 and the Wildcats were looking to find a scoring option after senior center Sarah Elliott (McKee, Ky.) had to leave the game due to a knee injury. From there, the Wildcats went on a 10-2 run over the next 4:16 to take a 56-48 lead with 5:43 remaining. UK was able to make clutch shots down the stretch to hang on for the victory.
“One thing that I was so happy with today is that we were able to execute and get some easy baskets off back screens and we had not been able to do that all year,” Mitchell said. “Those kinds of things were big for us. I thought we did a good job of executing in crunch time. It got kind of dicey when it was 46-46 and we were searching for some way to score. When we went to the bench at the under-eight media timeout, I told our team that they had stretched the lead by two since halftime and the next four minutes were going to be critical. We went into the last media timeout with a chance to shoot free throws to go up by nine, so I thought that was big for us.”
Kentucky turned up its defensive intensity in helping the Wildcats to the victory. UK charted a season-high 11 blocks in the game, marking its most swats since blocking 12 shots vs. Tennessee State on Dec. 22, 2005. The Wildcats set a Mississippi State school record for most blocks by an opponent in school history. Kentucky also won the rebound battle (41-38) for the first time since out-rebounding South Alabama by 10 on Dec. 30.
The Cats held Mississippi State to 32.9 percent (24-of-73) shooting from the floor, as the Cats have held five consecutive opponents to under 40-percent shooting. Since the Old Dominion game on Dec. 28, the Wildcats have not allowed an opponent to shoot better than 36.0 percent from the floor.
Bett brought down a career-high seven rebounds and blocked a personal-best three shots in tying her career high of 18 minutes played. Smith, starting at the point guard position for the fifth consecutive game, finished with 10 points recorded career highs in steals (4) and rebounds (5). She also tied her career high with two blocked shots. Sophomore guard forward Amani Franklin (Decatur, Ga.) tied her personal best with four assists.
“We have really worked on our passing these last two days and this morning in shootaround leading up to the game,” Mitchell said. “One thing we have been trying to do is to get Amber [Smith] to keep both feet on the floor when she’s making passes. She did an outstanding job with that tonight. I am really, really pleased that our guards are starting to look inside more. We can pick at a few things here and there, but overall, we’re just so, so proud to have the victory.”
The two teams battled closely to begin the game with three ties over the game’s first seven minutes. With the Wildcats ahead 14-12 at the 10:30 mark of the opening period, Kentucky went on a 9-0 run over the next three minutes that put them ahead 23-12. Sophomore guard/forward Lydia Watkins (Hopkinsville, Ky.) had the final five points of that run. The Cats extended their advantage to 27-18 on a jumper by Dunlap with 6:14 remaining until intermission. Mississippi State, however, closed the half on a 12-5 run that brought the Bulldogs within two, 32-30, at halftime.
The Wildcats shot 44.8 percent (13-of-29) from the floor in the opening period, while holding the Bulldogs to just 35.1 percent (13-of-37) from the field. Eight of 10 Kentucky players that saw action in the first half scored.
Kentucky scored the first seven points of the second half and used a 9-2 run over the first 3:05 of the period to go up 41-32 on a basket by Elliott at the 16:55 mark. From there, the Bulldogs went on a 9-1 run over the next 4:47 to pull within one, 42-41, on a jumper by Tysheka Grimes with 12:08 to go. Mississippi State continued its rally to knot the score at 46-all before senior guard Chante' Bowman (Detroit) blocked a three-point attempt by MSU’s Alexis Rack and took the ball the length of the floor to give UK back the lead at 48-46 with 8:57 remaining in the game. That sparked the 10-2 run by the Cats that gave them the win.
Grimes had a game-high 18 points and added seven rebounds to lead Mississippi State.
Kentucky returns to action Thursday, Jan. 17 when it plays host to No. 2/2 Tennessee. Tip-off in Memorial Coliseum is slated for 7 p.m. EST and the game will be carried live on the Big Blue Sports Network (radio) with Neil Price.