A Sheppard will lead them: Reed’s 32 points send Cats past Bulldogs, 91-89, in thriller

Published 12:55 pm Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Freshman phenom Reed Sheppard took his turn in the spotlight in a big way for 16th-ranked Kentucky on Tuesday. His last-second shot provided the difference in a big Southeastern Conference road victory over Mississippi State.

Sheppard scored a career-high 32 points to carry Kentucky to an exciting 91-89 triumph over Mississippi State in Starkville. Sheppard’s performance came three days after freshman classmate Justin Edwards scored 28, a career high, to lead the Wildcats to a 117-95 rout of No. 13 Alabama.

“He plays to win,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “He’s not playing not to lose. And we had to make some 3s to stay in the game. So we were running stuff to make some 3s in the first half to stay in the game. They went zone (in the second half), but we still ran stuff to get off some looks on 3s.”

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Kentucky (20-8, 10-5 Southeastern Conference) overcame a 13-point deficit and withstood a 34-point performance by Mississippi State guard Josh Hubbard to complete a regular-season sweep of the Bulldogs.

The Wildcats snapped Mississippi State’s five-game winning streak and remained in contention for a first-round bye in the conference tournament with three games remaining in the regular season. The Bulldogs fell to 19-9 overall, 8-7 in the conference and lost for the 19th time in the past 20 games against the Wildcats.

Nearly a week after dropping a 75-74 decision to LSU at the buzzer in Baton Rouge, a floater in the lane by Sheppard with five tenths of a second remaining helped the Wildcats avoid another heartbreaking loss on the road. Sheppard sealed the game when he snatched a desperation inbounds heave at the buzzer.

“Growing up, as a little kid always wanting to play at Kentucky, being out there and being able to hit the game-winning shot for Kentucky was really cool,” Sheppard said. “It was really special for me. To be able to deal with this group of guys, that we’re all really, really close with each other on and off the court was really special.”

Sheppard scored just seven points in the first half, but saved his best for last. He tallied 25 points in the second half and made 11 of his 14 attempts from the field. Sheppard made four 3-pointers, swished all six of his free throw attempts, grabbed five rebounds, had seven assists, two steals and a pair of blocks in 35 minutes.

Antonio Reeves followed Sheppard with 21 points, followed by Adou Thiero with 11 and D.J. Wagner with 10.

Mississippi State led 52-39 minutes into the second half and maintained a lead until a 3-pointer by Rob Dillingham gave the Wildcats their first lead at 72-71 with 4:24 remaining. Kentucky led 83-75 with 57 seconds remaining, but staved off the Bulldogs who tied the game at 89 on another spectacular 3-pointer from Hubbard.

Shepppard made four clutch free throws and connected on the decisive jumper in the final 35 seconds to give Kentucky its fourth win in the past five games.

“They got good looks out front and on ball screens we were not as aggressive for whatever reason,” Mississippi State coach Chris Jans said. “But got to give them a lot of credit. They made a heck of a play and (Sheppard) is like another coach out there. We had the game where we wanted and they flipped the script on us.”