GREENVILLE, S.C. (AP)Rickea Jackson had 29 points and defending champ No. 9 Mississippi State took control in the second half to defeat No. 16 Kentucky 77-59 Saturday night, reaching its fifth straight SEC Tournament final.
The Bulldogs were down 35-32 at the half and still behind when Rhyne Howard’s jumper put Kentucky in front 39-37.
But freshman Aliyah Matharu had three straight baskets to put Mississippi State (27-5) ahead for good and Jackson, another freshman, pushed the pace to make sure Kentucky could not rally.
The Wildcats (22-8) were seeking their first SEC final since 2014.
Matharu finished with 15 points, 13 of those in the final two quarters to fuel Mississippi State’s comeback.
Jackson, Matharu and the Bulldogs have another strong test ahead in the title game, facing No. 1 South Carolina, which ousted No. 25 Arkansas 90-64 earlier Saturday.
Mississippi State lost the tournament title to the Gamecocks three straight years from 2016-2018, the last one when it came in as the No. 1 seed.
Howard had 26 points, just nine of those coming in the final 20 minutes. She was just 3 of 11 from the field in that stretch.
Mississippi State spent most of the first half trailing LSU in Friday’s quarterfinals before running away to a 79-49 victory.
It was a similar scenario against Kentucky – and again it looked like the Bulldogs might claw back on top at the end, using an 8-0 run to move in front for the first time all game, 32-30.
But Howard and Chasity Patterson answered back for the Wildcats in the final minute. Howard hit two tying foul shots while Patterson nailed a straight-on 3-pointer with 4.5 seconds left to give Kentucky a 35-32 lead at the break.
It was the fourth time in the past eight games the Bulldogs trailed at halftime. They rallied to win three times, including this one.
THE BIG PICTURE
Kentucky: The Wildcats came out hot and seemed locked in – until the final two quarters. When Howard missed shots, Kentucky could not find enough scoring to keep close to Mississippi State. The Wildcats will need to spend time finding others to step forward offensively before the NCAA Tournament.
Mississippi State: People have raved about South Carolina’s freshman trio in starters Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal. But Jackson and Matharu are close behind, if not the equal. Mississippi State is a powerhouse team when those two are active and involved.
Kentucky will await its NCAA Tournament destination with a chance to open at home as a top-four seed.
Mississippi State will face No. 1 South Carolina for the SEC Tournament title Sunday.