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Big night from Hubbard not enough to fuel Mississippi State to home win over No. 16 Kentucky

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Photo courtesy of Mississippi State Athletics

The Mississippi State men’s basketball team found itself on the wrong end of the scoreboard in a hotly-contested 91-89 home showdown against No. 16 Kentucky.

Freshman sensation Josh Hubbard’s electric 34-point performance was not enough to will the Bulldogs (19-9, 8-7 SEC) to a victory in a close one versus the Wildcats (20-8, 10-5 SEC) in front of a ruckus crowd in Humphrey Coliseum.

An offensive duel between Hubbard and Kentucky’s Reed Sheppard took place on Tuesday night with both guards shooting at an incredibly high volume and knocking down shots in the most clutch moments of the game.

Mississippi State opened up the game on a 14-3 run in the first 5:25 with big man Tolu Smith getting a lot of action down low, which later opened things up at the perimeter for Hubbard and company to get to work.

Kentucky found a bit of an offensive rhythm and scored seven unanswered to cut the deficit to four with 13:19 left in the first half. As the two teams started trading blows for the next nine minutes of action, Hubbard and Reed began heating up, giving fans a sneak peek of what was to come in the second half.

Fueled by an unexpected pair of triples by D.J. Jeffries, the Bulldogs closed out the half on an 11-5 run to hold a 43-35 lead at the intermission.

Then the fun began. In the first eight seconds after the break, Hubbard connected on a three in which he was fouled and made the subsequent free throw to put the Bulldogs up double-digits. A couple of unanswered buckets by the Wildcats put Kentucky within eight, but Hubbard was just getting started.

The freshman sank yet another triple and Shakeel Moore secured a layup to give Mississippi State its largest lead of the night at 52-39 with 18:11 left in the game, but Kentucky did not go away.

Wildcat guard Antonio Reeves, who fueled his team to a win against the Bulldogs in January, put his team on his shoulders, scoring eight points in a 14-6 run to inch closer to evening out the scoreboard.

Then came Sheppard. The freshman scored 10 of Kentucky’s net 14 points to cut the deficit to two as Mississippi State held on for dear life to maintain a lead. Those efforts, spearheaded by Smith and Hubbard, were not enough.

With 4:24 left in the game, Kentucky’s Rob Dillingham hit a triple to flip the scoreboard, giving the Wildcats a 72-71 lead and momentum. The game began to get away from Mississippi State and with just under one minute remaining, Chris Jans’ crew found themselves trailing by eight.

Jans, playing a little coaching chess with the legendary John Calipari, had his team send Kentucky players to the free throw line in hopes that Hubbard could land triples, thus trading twos for threes, giving the Bulldogs a one-point scoring advantage with each drive — and it worked.

Two Hubbard threes after a couple of sets of Wildcat free throws later, Mississippi State trailed just 85-81 with 43 seconds remaining. After Sheppard landed two free throws to put Kentucky back up two scores, Cam Matthews was fouled on a successful layup attempt and hit the charity shot to make things interesting.

Kentucky coughed up the ball on the very next drive and Smith found himself at the free throw line with a chance to cut the deficit to just one point, and he did, but the Bulldogs were forced to foul Sheppard on the following inbound. He then completed a perfect night at the charity stripe.

Down three with just over 10 seconds left in the contest, Hubbard hit his seventh triple of the night with hopes of sending the game to overtime. However, Sheppard had other plans and connected on a mid-range jumper to put the Wildcats up two. A bad pass turnover from Bulldog guard Shawn Jones, Jr., officially ended the tough battle between the two SEC foes.

Joining Hubbard in having a big night for Mississippi State was Smith, who earned yet another double-double, scoring 21 points and hauling in 10 rebounds.

Sheppard led Kentucky with 32 points, making 11 of 14 shots from the floor, and making all six free throw attempts. Reeves also had a strong outing with 21 points.

As for NCAA Tournament hopes, the Bulldogs still sit comfortably in the good graces of bracketologists, with ESPN’s Joe Lunardi listing Mississippi State as a No. 8 seed.

The Bulldogs will have an opportunity to bolster their resume on Saturday at No. 11 Auburn. Tipoff is set for 3 p.m. central. Mississippi State won the last matchup 64-58.

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