In the sometimes cruel, always judgmental, “what have you done for me lately?” world of college basketball, the Kentucky Wildcats had the right answers to that question in Columbia, Missouri, Saturday afternoon:
We played harder. We played better. We won – on the road.
Perhaps the players-only meeting worked. At the request of Alex Poythress, the Cats gathered and talked it out, some reportedly apologizing for how poorly they played at LSU. Their coach? Couldn’t have cared less. “Don’t talk, show me, “ Calipari said. And they did, on this afternoon in the Show Me state.
“They beat the crap out of us,” Calipari said of LSU. “So we played a little bit better. Are we this team or are we the other team?”
Of course, Calipari is hoping it’s the one he saw in Columbia. “The team we want ‘em to be was the team we were today,” he said. “I told ‘em, my teams play with fire, with emotion, with enthusiasm and you will -- or I won’t play you.”
After allowing the LSU Tigers to claw them to shreds Tuesday on an icy, frigid night in Baton Rouge, the Wildcats mushed their way into Mizzou Arena on another wintry game day. Missouri awaited, with its guard-heavy lineup featuring veteran backcourt players who likely couldn’t wait to measure themselves against the highly-touted invaders from Lexington.
And true enough, it turned into a backcourt battle but not because that’s the way Calipari planned it. He fully intended to attack with more strength on the front line, adding Dakari Johnson to his starting five, subtracting the struggling Willie Cauley-Stein. But quick whistles landed both big men in jail, putting even more pressure on the young Kentucky perimeter players.
The Twins combined to hit 10 of 18 field goals, three of five from beyond the arc and 12 of 16 from the free throw line. Aaron finished with 21, Andrew 14 along with four assists, two steals and a remarkable one turnover in 31 minutes. His brother played 36 minutes without turning it over once.
“Aaron played. So did his brother,” said Calipari, who apparently had warned Aaron that if his game began to resemble the way he played in Louisiana, he’d spend much of this game in a seated position.
Play, he did – both for himself, and his teammates. “It was fun, actually,” Aaron Harrison said. “When we play together, we have a lot more fun.”
Taking care of the basketball was a common theme for both squads; the Wildcats finished with just seven errors and Missouri eight, after committing three in the first 2:41. Both teams spent a hefty portion of the afternoon in zones, with Calipari forced to protect his foul-riddled team. Mizzou coach Frank Haith, like so many of his coaching brethren, had his Tigers set up camp around Julius Randle, challenging the rest of the Cats to do their worst.
Instead, when they had to be, they were at their best.
“I loved the fight,” Calipari said, “the emotion they played with, the
James Young followed up a stellar night at LSU with a 20-point effort, including a powerful, two-handed slam in the early minutes of the game as the Cats ran off to a quick lead. Because his teammates were in foul trouble, Young had to play 38 minutes, but he was up to it, burying eight of 14 shots, including four of seven from downtown.
Kentucky jumped on Missouri and built a modest lead, which it eventually extended to 16 in the second half. But that’s when the foul trouble caught up. And inexperience.
“I think we had five freshmen out there most of the game,” Calipari said. “And there were times we looked like it.”
Johnson would play just 11 minutes and Cauley-Stein only seven.
Because the UK bigs couldn’t challenge defensively, the Tiger guards took advantage, attacking the rim time and again, carving into the Wildcat lead. Jabari Brown would finish with 33 points and Jordan Clarkson 28 (Mizzou’s two starting frontliners combined for a total of three points).
But every time the Cats looked wobbly, somebody came through. Julius Randle battled the Tiger beef inside all day, tipping in his own miss with 2:51 to give Kentucky a 76-68 lead.
Missouri kept chipping away, either with drives or bombs from beyond the arc. The Tigers chopped it to 76-71 but the Cats were patient. Andrew Harrison and Alex Poythress worked a perfect pick-and-roll play, with Poythress rolling to the basket unattended for an easy slam and a seven-point lead.
A few seconds later, Brown dialed in from NBA three-point range and connected, AND drew a foul, completing a rare four-point play and trimming UK’s lead to 78-75 with 1:20 remaining. It was a one-possession game.
With both teams playing just a rumor of defense, they swapped layups. It was a three-point game inside the final 20 seconds when Aaron Harrison, deep in the left corner, took aim at the rim and bolted along the baseline.
“If you go baseline,” Harrison said, “you have to hit the man in the corner, or try to score.”
The Mizzou defense crashed, but Harrison managed to re-surface on the far side of the rim, throwing in a twisting, banking layup, giving the Wildcats a five-point lead with 12.6 seconds left. Dagger.
A few seconds later, with Missouri in desperate need of a basket, Poythress swatted away a shot and recovered the rebound, sealing the deal, finally allowing the Big Blue Nation to exhale. The Wildcats won it, 84-79, beating a Missouri team that had lost only three times in 45 previous home games under Haith.
After being all but shut down on the Bayou, Randle bounced back impressively with 18 points and nine boards. “I knew I had to play better,” he said. “We knew after the LSU game, we had to come back strong.”
The victory keeps the Wildcats within eyesight of Florida, which destroyed Texas A&M Saturday afternoon. The Gators are still undefeated in the league; UK was two SEC losses. And it improves the resume’ the Cats eventually will present to the NCAA Tournament selections committee.
“This was a good win for a young team,” Calipari said. “Hopefully, we got over the hump.”
Calipari had no interest in what went on in Poythress’ hotel room after the LSU loss. All he cared about was the practice floor and the 40 minutes at Mizzou. And the Wildcats showed him what he wanted to see.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)