Live by the three, die by the three. Mississippi State lived by it Tuesday night and as a result, Kentucky must now live through a three-game losing streak.
In the latest of UK's perplexing three-game skid, the Wildcats (16-7, 5-3 Southeastern Conference) gave up 14 3-pointers on Tuesday night in a 66-57 loss to Mississippi State (15-7, 5-2 SEC) in front of 21,940 fans at Rupp Arena. The Bulldogs tied a season high for treys to defeat UK for a third straight season.
"When you make shots and keep them from making shots, that'll give you some separation," MSU Coach Rick Stansbury said.
Thirty points of separation, as a matter of fact. Just a game after giving up 18 offensive boards, the Wildcats ran into a new problem Tuesday night. The Bulldogs rained 3-pointers all over the Rupp Arena floor to a 51.9 percent clip (14-of-27).
Coming into the game the story was Mississippi State center Jarvis Varnado, who leads the nation in blocks with 105 swats. Varnado got his share of blocks again - he blocked seven shots and ripped down 12 rebounds - but it was the untypical four-guard lineup that ultimately doomed the Wildcats on Tuesday night.
Playing with a considerably smaller team, Stansbury's game plan was to spread the Wildcats out on defense and shut down junior Jodie Meeks and sophomore Patrick Patterson on offense.
Both worked to near perfection.
Patterson and Meeks rarely got going offensively - they each scored 15 points apiece - and Mississippi State's "spread" offense atoned to 27 attempts from behind the arc.
"If you're going to play small you have to win the war," Stansbury said. "I thought we won that war."
And now, UK has a war on its hand that it hasn't faced in over a year. The loss to the Bulldogs is the first time the Wildcats have lost three straight games since losing four games in December of 2007.
The secret of late has been the ability of opposing teams to spread UK out, but Gillispie believes the blame falls solely on the Wildcats.
"Obviously we didn't defend like we needed to tonight," Gillispie said. "We thought they would get a lot of their points off of penetration and pitch, but they got their threes off of back screens and inbounded balls. We just didn't do a good job defending them behind the arc. We played hard; we just didn't play smart tonight."
To Gillispie and the Wildcats' credit, UK had a hand in the face of every player for the majority of the 3-point shots. Still, that didn't stop MSU's Ravern Johnson or Phil Turner from combining for 35 points.
Johnson, a sophomore guard, knocked down five of his eight 3-point attempts, and Turner, a sophomore guard, drilled another four from behind the arc
Meanwhile, the Wildcats could never find their touch from the floor, shooting just 33.3 percent from the floor and 28.6 percent from the 3-point line.
"I don't think it's nervousness," junior Michael Porter. "Maybe we're just thinking too much. Confidence plays a factor."
After a scorching December and January, Meeks has been slowed down of late, and he hit just six of his 15 shots.
"We are not getting him enough opportunities to get shots where he needs to get shots," Gillispie said. "We aren't helping him or giving him anything in transition. ... He's trying too hard but only because he's trying to help us score baskets. He's still playing hard. Other teams have done a great job defending Jodie since the Tennessee game. That should still leave the floor open for other guys and we aren't taking advantage of that."
The Wildcats' shooting woes plagued them from the beginning. UK went more than six minutes to start the game without a single point to fall behind 8-0. Freshman guard Darius Miller, who Gillispie said is getting better every time out, finally got the Wildcats on track with back-to-back buckets, but his seven-point, five-assist performance was one of the few bright spots on Tuesday.
A 10-0 run midway through the second half got the Wildcats as close as 43-40, but UK never led the Bulldogs. A pair of free throws and a Varnado two-hand slam halted the Wildcat rally, and a 3-pointer from Dee Bost - who was three steps behind the line - slammed the door shut.
Saddled with a three-game losing streak, the Wildcats have to find answers before the rivalry game with Florida next week. Gillispie maintained after the game that they're playing with as much intensity as ever, but Porter said the next week would determine how much heart the Wildcats have.
"We have no room to lose right now," Porter said. "We're still not where we want to be. Any loss can play a big factor in postseason. We really have no room to give games away like this."