Kentucky coach Tubby Smith learned a valuable lesson during his team’s first SEC loss of the season: The third-ranked Wildcats can’t survive a bad game from senior forward Chuck Hayes.
“He’s our heart and soul,” Smith said after Kentucky’s stunning 73-61 loss at South Carolina on Tuesday. “When his heart and soul’s not right—we’re hurting.”
Hayes and the Wildcats (19-3, 10-1) will try to recover from the defeat when they host conference rival Mississippi State (18-7, 6-5) on Saturday.
Hayes, averaging 10.6 points and a team-best 8.7 rebounds, went 0-for-5 from the field and finished with one point and nine boards in 36 minutes as the Wildcats suffered their first road loss to the Gamecocks since 1997.
“We’re not much without Hayes, that’s pretty obvious,” said Smith, who was denied a shot at his second perfect run through the SEC schedule in three seasons.
Kelenna Azubuike scored 16 points for Kentucky, which suffered its first loss in 20 conference games. The Wildcats also remained one victory shy of their 50th 20-win season.
“They pretty much outworked us in most areas and really controlled the tempo of the game,” Smith said. “They just seemed like they wanted it more than we did.”
Azubuike paces Kentucky with 14.2 points per game, but Hayes had led the team in scoring in three of the previous four games.
“It’s obviously very frustrating,” said Hayes, who warned his teammates about a potential letdown after a scare against last-place Georgia last Saturday. “It’s obvious that we have some bad habits we need to fix.”
The Bulldogs have alternated wins and losses in their last 10 games, including Wednesday’s 80-72 defeat to LSU. Shane Power scored 20 points and Lawrence Roberts added 13 points and 14 rebounds, but Mississippi State fell into third in the SEC East, three games behind No. 16 Alabama.
The Wildcats lead the East by two games over Florida.
“That is a big test for our team going to play Kentucky,” said Bulldogs reserve guard Winsome Frazier, who scored 11 points Wednesday in his return from a five-week absence due to a broken foot.
“We got to remember that it is just one game and we have to go back and work hard in practice and get ready to play.”
Kentucky has won seven of the last eight meetings with Mississippi State.