STARKVILLE — After his deep two-point jump shot banked hard off the glass and dropped through the rim, Dontaie Allen smiled and shrugged.
The Kentucky redshirt freshman’s body language was crystal clear: Why not?
At the other end of the floor, Mississippi State seemed to shrug its collective shoulders, too. The Bulldogs, after all, had the same question to ask themselves.
Even inside Humphrey Coliseum, even against an uncharacteristically struggling Kentucky team, even with a nine-point lead with as many minutes to go … why not? Why couldn’t Mississippi State manage to beat the Wildcats for the first time since Feb. 3, 2009?
It’s a question Ben Howland and his team will certainly be asking themselves after Mississippi State’s 78-73 loss to Kentucky (2-6, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) on Saturday evening in Starkville.
“There’s a lot of hurt right now after losing that one today with so many opportunities to win it,” Howland said postgame.
Perhaps the best of those chances for the Bulldogs (6-4, 1-1 SEC) came when Kentucky head coach John Calipari picked up two quick technical fouls and was ejected with 9 minutes, 4 seconds remaining in the game.
As Calipari slowly exited via the northeast tunnel and Jalen Johnson sank three of his four technical free throws, Mississippi State thought it felt things shifting its way.
The Bulldogs were wrong.
Allen made a 3-pointer, and Kentucky added two fast-break buckets off MSU miscues to cut the lead to two points in barely more than a minute.
“They weren’t just turnovers; they were turnovers leading to easy baskets on the other end for them,” Howland said.
After that, the Wildcats and Bulldogs were left to duke it out on even footing, and the more talented team — despite its well publicized struggles this season — fought its way to a win.
That was thanks in no small part to Allen, who came into Saturday’s game with seven points on 2-of-6 shooting all season and left with seven 3s and 23 more points on his resume.
“He was the difference-maker for them offensively,” Howland said of Allen.
The MSU coach said he directed his team to stop helping away from Allen on defense late in the second half, but the guard continued to seize every opportunity.
Allen tied the game with 1:34 left in regulation, put Kentucky up three with a trey in overtime before MSU’s Iverson Molinar answered, then followed his banked-in jumper with a dagger 3 with 2:28 to go in the second overtime period to give the Wildcats a six-point edge.
Not bad for a guy who had appeared in just four of Kentucky’s first seven games and had spent a total of 20 minutes on the court.
“What Dontaie needs to do is stay ready so when his opportunity comes, bang, he takes advantage of it,” Calipari told reporters Dec. 19, according to KentuckySportsRadio.com. “We’ve had it happen before to guys, and that’s what he’s got to do.”
Allen took advantage of his chances Saturday. But Mississippi State struggled to do the same.
With the game tied 68-68 in overtime and 15 seconds remaining, the Bulldogs botched their final possession of the period. Under heavy pressure, Molinar dribbled around the left side and failed to launch a deep 3-pointer before the clock ran out.
“We didn’t get a good shot off, and we’ve got to do a better job executing on these situations in these kinds of games,” Howland said.
Kentucky’s Olivier Sarr kicked off the scoring in double overtime with a 3, and Allen’s five-point burst followed a pair of free throws by the Bulldogs’ D.J. Stewart. Less than two and a half minutes later, the Wildcats had escaped Starkville with a win.
They left the Bulldogs feeling the pain of a victory that slipped from their clutches.
“It’s going to hurt, and it should hurt,” Howland said. “It’s going to hurt all of us very much. That motivates you and pushes you to do better. If it doesn’t hurt, then it’s a problem.”
However, the coach noted, “tomorrow is a new day.”
The Bulldogs host No. 12 Missouri at 8 p.m. Tuesday with a chance to make amends. As Molinar put it postgame, Mississippi State’s season is far from over, and Saturday’s loss will only help down the line.
“It’s going to make us grow as a team,” Molinar said. “It’s going to unite us a little bit more than we are right now.”
Theo DeRosa reports on Mississippi State sports for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter at @Theo_DeRosa.