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Wildcats eyeing sweep of ‘desperate’ Mississippi State as they return to Starkville Saturday

By Keith Taylor
Kentucky Today

Kentucky has already beaten Mississippi State this season and will be looking for a season sweep Saturday in Starkville.

The Wildcats (19-3, 8-1 Southeastern Conference) carry a nine-game winning streak into the contest against the Bulldogs. Mississippi State (16-6, 4-5) is coming off a 92-88 overtime loss to LSU and Kentucky’s players aren’t taking the Bulldogs lightly despite a double-digit victory earlier this season at home.

“They’re going to come out with a chip on their shoulder,” Kentucky guard Ashton Hagans said Friday. “They lost at home (Wednesday). So, they’re going to come out ready to fight. So, we’ve just got to be prepared and stay focused.”

Kentucky assistant coach Tony Barbee agreed.

Kentucky guard Ashton Hagans and the Wildcats carry a nine-game winning streak into their contest at Mississippi State Saturday in Starkville. (Kentucky Today/Tammie Brown)

“They are going to be desperate,” Barbee said. “They are as talented and as big, and as physical and talented on the perimeter as any team in the league. That probably stung giving that one away on their home court, so it’s going to be obviously a sold-out arena like we face everywhere and our guys are getting used to playing in those kinds of environments on the road. We’re going to come out and give them our best and I’m sure they’re going to do the same as us.”

Barbee doesn’t think the Wildcats will overlook the Bulldogs and added Kentucky isn’t  in store for a “trap game.” Kentucky has won 12 straight against Mississippi State, while Wildcats coach John Calipari owns a 13-0 record against Ben Howland’s squad.

“This team is focused,” Barbee said. “I mean, you see it every day in practice.Practices are so competitive that you can’t expect a letdown in the games. These guys have been practicing, going after each other, competing against each other, they’re having fun together, and so, it doesn’t matter the opponent on the floor, they’re going to come to play every night.”

Kentucky soundly defeated Mississippi State 76-55 on Jan. 22 in a game that was part of three straight wins in a seven-day span. The fifth-ranked Wildcats also defeated Auburn and Kansas in the SEC/Big 12 Challenge that propelled Kentucky back into the Top 10. Hagans said the lopsided victory over the Bulldogs was part of recent a defensive turnaround.

“That’s when we started stepping up a lot more on defense,” he said. “We started coming together as a team, realizing what we needed to do and getting better at stopping the three. That’s when we were getting that all together, just coming along and getting better from there.”

Because of a renewed emphasis on defense, the Wildcats have limited seven of their last eight opponents to under 40 percent shooting from the floor and the last six foes have scored less than 63 points. During its current win streak, Kentucky has opponents have averaged just 58 points per game.

Hagans has led the charge and his teammates have followed suit.

“I bring intensity on defense, but I wouldn’t say it’s just me. I think everybody is trying to get better on the defensive end,” he said. “Tyler (Herro) made a big stride on the defensive end. As it goes along, Keldon (Johnson) is getting way better on the defensive end. We’re all there for each other, knowing that we’re going to go out there and fight for each other. As the season goes along, the defense is going to get better.”

Hagans also doesn’t mind being the catalyst on the defensive end of the court.

“It’s fun to me because once you get the steal, you’re going to have a lob, a fast-break layup or something like that,” he said. “I just love playing defense, getting into somebody’s body and just being aggressive.”

Sophomore Nick Richards added paying attention to details on defense has been a difference-maker during the past six weeks.

“We just noticed that we hate losing,” he said. “Everybody on this team just loves winning, so we just gotta do whatever it takes to win. We just figured out that defense is one of the most important things that we gotta do.”

Gametracker: Kentucky at Mississippi State, 1 p.m., Sunday. TV/Radio: CBS, UK Radio Network.

Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at keith.taylor@kentuckytoday.com or twitter @keithtaylor21.

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