LEXINGTON, Ky. -- John Calipari had seen enough. The Kentucky coach watched the Wildcats jog through 25 mostly uninspired minutes against Mississippi State on Tuesday night when he ordered his team to go to a fullcourt press.
The goal wasn't necessarily to turn the heat up on the Bulldogs, but on Calipari's own players.
"We just had no fire, no fight," Calipari said. "I told them, 'We're pressing man to man and if you choose to go back, I'm subbing you.' "
The Wildcats (18-7, 6-5 Southeastern Conference) took charge when they pressed the Bulldogs (13-12, 5-6) into a series of careless mistakes before narrowly avoiding a late-game collapse to improve to 30-0 under Calipari at Rupp Arena.
"[The press] got us going," said Knight, who extended his school freshman record with his 11th 20-point game of the season. "We started forcing them to start rushing and used it to our advantage."
Kentucky shot 56 percent from the floor, including 67 percent in the second half.
Mississippi State nearly matched the Wildcats shot for shot. Ravern Johnson led the Bulldogs with 21 points and Jalen Steele added a career-high 17 but the Bulldogs let an 11-point lead get away late in the first half thanks to a bizarre meltdown.
The Bulldogs went up 40-35 on a pair of free throws by Johnson with 5 seconds left in the half. Kentucky inbounded and Mississippi State, with a couple of fouls to give, immediately fouled Knight. The Wildcats inbounded near midcourt with 3 seconds remaining and got the ball to Knight, who was fouled by Brian Bryant.
Knight, on Calipari's orders, threw the ball meekly toward the rim after the contact. The referees awarded him three free throws, saying he was in the act of shooting.
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury momentarily lost it, earning a technical foul after storming after the officials.
Knight made four of the five free throws to pull Kentucky within 40-39 at the break and change the game.
"It was big because instead of being down five we're only down one and when you see one on the scoreboard instead of five, you're like, 'OK,' ... I thought the coach wouldn't agree with it obviously," Knight said.
Stansbury declined to talk about the incident and instead placed blame on his team's porous second-half defense.
"We're choosing our poison a bit with that zone [defense] and you can't guard them all," he said.
Kentucky took its first lead of the game early in the second half on a layup by Josh Harrellson but Mississippi State momentarily righted itself, going in front 50-47 on a jumper by Steele.
Calipari then went to the press, and Kentucky responded with an 11-0 burst. Terrence Jones got the Wildcats going with a layup then using his long arms to grab a pair of steals on Mississippi State's next two possessions, leading to easy baskets at the other end of the floor.
The lead grew to 58-50 before the Bulldogs snapped out of it, getting within 65-63 before another surge by the Wildcats pushed the margin to 83-70 with 3:49 to play.
Kentucky, as it has done all season, struggled to put it away. A series of turnovers and missed shots helped Mississippi State get as close as 83-79 with 49 seconds remaining before Kentucky could finish the Bulldogs off.
The Wildcats held on despite allowing the Bulldogs to make 12 of 22 3-pointers. It's a statistic Calipari can live with if his team plays as effectively in the open floor. Kentucky outscored Mississippi State 12-0 on the fast break.
Lamb started in place of Darius Miller, who was questionable suffering a leg injury against the Commodores. Calipari has repeatedly asked Lamb to play with more energy, and he responded with his best performance since dropping 32 in a victory over Winthrop in December.
Lamb knocked down 7 of 8 shots, including all three of his 3-pointers while winning a game-long duel with Mississippi State's Dee Bost. Bost finished with 16 points but it was Lamb who had the flair for the dramatic. He drilled a couple of big jumpers in the second half to help give Kentucky some breathing room, holding three fingers over his right eye after both shots.
"We just turned the ball over when we should have taken care of the ball," Bost said. "They knocked down some shots in transition."
The chippy atmosphere at Rupp has become commonplace in what has become an increasingly fractious rivalry.
The two teams fought a pair of classics last season, with Kentucky prevailing in taut affairs, including an overtime win in the SEC title game.
The stakes weren't quite so high this time, but for a Kentucky team exposed on the road -- where the Wildcats are just 1-5 in conference -- the victory was nearly as important.
Miller looked just fine when he saw the floor, finishing with 13 points. Jones had 17 points and 10 rebounds and Harrellson held his own with Mississippi State sophomore forward Renardo Sidney.
Harrellson had nine points and six rebounds compared to 11 points and eight boards for Sidney, who was completely gassed at times and failed to shine in front of more than a dozen NBA scouts on hand.
Stansbury defended Sidney's effort, claiming the harassing phone calls Sidney claims he received before the game played only a small factor in his performance.
"I thought Sid played hard, does that mean every minute he's on that floor he's fresh? No," Stansbury said. "That's just where he is in his game right now."
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