LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Kentucky, playing only one home game between Jan. 2 and Jan. 23, was desperate to protect home court and came away with an 80-74 victory over Mississippi State on Tuesday at Rupp Arena.
But it didn't come easy, as the No. 14 Wildcats blew a 20-point lead before winning by six thanks to six made free throws in the final minutes en route to their ninth straight victory in the series.
"We have to do something when we have guys no-show us," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "We've got to figure out how we win anyway and how do we play then?
"We were up 18, 19, whatever it was, when they weren't playing well, and we figured out a way. So there were some good things. But give them credit, they didn't stop playing. If they hadn't turned it over as much as they did in a couple of stretches, they'd probably beat us."
After a career-best 25 points in Saturday's win at Alabama, Kentucky senior forward Alex Poythress was held scoreless in the first half and finished with six points. His running mate in the paint, junior Marcus Lee, had just two points.
"Alex made the free throws down the stretch and showed a lot of courage," Calipari said. "There were things that he did. But in the guts of that game, he was not a factor, and when you're that good, you need to be a factor."
Calipari said the challenge is to keep the fact some guys are not playing hard out of the locker room. That may fall to sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis, who has been chastising teammates during recent games.
"I told Tyler, you say it before the game and you say it during the game, then you're allowed to say it after the game," Calipari said. "You don't say something to him before the game and during the game. Do not speak to him after the game. That's not fair. But if you got on them prior to, you're on them during the game, and you're telling them what they need to do and they're not responding, then you have a right to say something after."
The desperation to win at home was abundantly clear out of the gate as the Wildcats (13-3, 3-1 SEC) used a 23-5 run to create a 13-point lead midway through the first half.
Freshman guard Jamal Murray scored 11 of his 22 points during the run and made three 3-pointers. Kentucky's three-guard lineup accounted for 20 of the Wildcats' first 23 points.
The Bulldogs (7-8, 0-3), who had 10 points and eight turnovers at one point, responded with a 9-0 run before Kentucky pushed it back out to 39-31 at halftime.
The Wildcats scored 14 straight points after Mississippi State scored the first two of the second half with Ulis providing half the output. At that point, Kentucky's three guards -- Murray, Ulis and Isaiah Briscoe -- scored 38 of its 53 points.
The Bulldogs, though, went on a 7-0 run to make it 74-71 with 1:14 to go before a key offensive rebound and two foul shots from Poythress sealed the victory.
Ulis scored 21 points and Briscoe added 14. Kentucky owned the boards 33-20, but committed 17 turnovers.
Mississippi State was led senior guard Craig Sword's 20 points. Freshman guard Malik Newman added 14 for the Bulldogs, who shot 53 percent but were hampered by 19 turnovers.
"They built up a big lead and I was very proud of the way our players powered back and showed a lot of fight, a lot of heart," Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said. "We aren't that far away. We were down three points tonight, down three in our last game at Arkansas. And those are two of the toughest places to play in our league and in our country."
NOTES: G Jamal Murray has scored 20 or more points in three straight games. ... The Wildcats lead the series 93-20. ... G Tyler Ulis, who is 5-foot-9, 150 pounds, leads the SEC with 36 minutes played per game. ... The mercurial talent that is Kentucky senior F Alex Poythress has been on full display early in SEC play. In a loss to LSU on Jan. 5, Poythress had four points and five fouls. Four days later, in a win at Alabama, he had a career-best 25 points.