It'd been exactly a month since Mississippi State had last played at The Hump. In December, the team picked to win the SEC West Title had suffered an embarassing 68-70 loss to Arkansas-Little Rock, led by future 19-year NBA veteran and current New York Knicks head coach Derek Fisher.
But this game wasn't against some Sun Belt team with an unbeknownst star. This game was against Kentucky. The #2 team in the nation. A team flanked with not one, but numerous superstars. And the Wildcats wanted revenge.
Kentucky's last SEC loss came against the Bulldogs at Rupp Arena, on Valentine's Day a year before. Marcus Grant's six three-pointers overcame 24 Bulldog turnovers in our first win ever at Rupp Arena. An early SEC win against the SEC West favorites would both grant revenge, and put Kentucky in the driver's seat for the 1996 conference title.
Meanwhile, Mississippi State was on a streak of four consecutive wins against power-conference teams. Oregon State, Nebraska, LSU, and Florida had each been defeated, and a win against Kentucky would be icing on the cake for the #16 Bulldogs.
10,315, a then-record for attendance, packed The Hump for the "Super Tuesday" matchup on ESPN.
State came out cold, but finished the half on a 6-0 run, lucky to be facing just an 8-point deficit after committing 15 turnovers in the first half.
The Bulldogs continued the scoring streak in the second half, posting the first 6 points of the period and cutting the lead to 2. There, it stayed, and State was just down by 3 with 13 minutes left in the game.
But the turnovers finally bit the Bulldogs. In a three minute span, Kentucky forced five turnovers and went on a 15-0 run that included four 3-pointers.
With ten minutes left, Kentucky's lead had exploded to 56-38, and State went on to lose by that same margin, 74-56.
Kentucky put constant pressure on Dampier, who finished just 4-7 from the field and 6-11 from the FT line. Darryl Wilson added 19 points, while Dontae Jones had 9 turnovers and 10 points.
Kentucky center Walter McCarty summed it up best after the game.
We turned it up and fatigued them. We knew they had certain guys who played a lot of minutes. That is what we try to do, wear them down in the first half and turn it up after that.
And that's exactly what they did. State boasted a solid starting 5, but lacked help from the bench. In contrast, Kentucky started four future NBA first-round picks, and brought three more future NBA players off the bench.
The Wildcats were able to constantly sub out for quality bodies while State relied heavily on its big-three of Wilson, Dampier, and Jones. And they simply weren't enough for the star power of Kentucky.
But this wasn't the final chapter in the MSU/Kentucky series in 1996. The Bulldogs would eventually get another shot at the Wildcats. Next time, in New Orleans, with the SEC Tournament Championship on the line...