Post-Game Report: Mizzou hangs on to top Kentucky

Missouri led for all but 52 seconds of Wednesday night’s matchup with Kentucky. But the game was far from one-sided. The Tigers jumped out to a 13-point halftime lead, but the Wildcats wouldn’t go away. Kentucky started the second half on a 10-1 run, and five different times during the final 20 minutes, it cut Missouri’s lead to one possession. Every time, Missouri found an answer, with several different players coming up clutch down the stretch. The Tigers ultimately won 75-70, improving to 12-3 overall and 5-3 in SEC play, which puts them alone in second place in the league standings.

Below is our recap of the win, including what we learned.

* Missouri continues to find ways to win games. Saturday, the Tigers had to complete a frantic comeback while relying on Xavier Pinson and Jeremiah Tilmon to carry the offense. Four days later, the team had eight players score, got 23 points from the bench and withstood several Kentucky runs.

Asked after the game how his team managed to find an answer every time Kentucky made a surge, Cuonzo Martin joked “I guess, somewhat, we’re lucky.” He then attributed the perseverance to his team’s experience.

“I think they understand that it’s hard to be successful,” Martin said. “They understand that. And when you have a majority of guys that have been through a lot, some bumps in the road, they’ve learned some valuable lessons.”

Not only did Missouri have to find different sources of points than just Pinson and Tilmon, it had to adjust its offense mid-game. John Calipari’s defensive game plan was clear: send two defenders at Tilmon every time he got the ball down low and clog the lane, forcing Missouri to shoot over his defense. In a sense, the strategy worked. Missouri shot just 15-40, 37.5 percent, from two-point range. Yet the Tigers made up for it by getting hot from behind the three-point arc in the first half, then living at the free throw line in the second.

Missouri made five of its first six shots from behind the arc to start the game and seven of 11 in the first half. The Tigers cooled off in the second, however, making just two of 10 three-pointers. So they responded by attacking the paint and taking advantage of a tight whistle. Kentucky got called for 17 team fouls in the second half. Missouri shot 22 free throws in the final 20 minutes.

“I thought our guys were aggressive,” Martin said. “I thought we did a great job of getting into the paint. We kind of met our number, so to speak, whether it’s via paint touches or offensive rebounds or off of drives.”

It took Missouri more than six minutes to make its first field goal of the second half, and by that time Kentucky had cut the Tiger lead to a single point. The momentum then yo-yo-ed back and forth for the rest of the half, with Missouri extending its lead back to eight, then Kentucky cutting it to two; Missouri going up nine, Kentucky getting it back within three.

With fewer than four minutes to play, the Tigers led by just three. During the final media timeout of the game, Martin told his team it would have to win on the defensive end, and his players responded. Kentucky scored just five points in the final four minutes.

“We were just in the huddle, we were saying we got to get a stop, just stay the course like coach was saying,” Mark Smith recalled. “We just went down and got a couple key stops and a few big baskets, and that’s how we won. We got a lot of rebounds and stuff like that.”

* Dru Smith may look like athletically overmatched compared to the stable of rangy guards and wings on Kentucky’s roster, but he controlled the game for Missouri. Smith led the Tigers with 26 points, but as usual, that was far from his only contribution. He also grabbed seven rebounds, dished five assists, recorded two steals and only turned the ball over one time in 37 minutes.

“He’s an experienced guard who’s battle-tested,” Martin said of Smith. “He competes and he gives effort on both sides of the ball. I just think the thing about tonight, you see the 26 points, but I think his effort overall is always good. I mean, he had 26 points, five assists, one turnover, seven rebounds, 14 free throws. Those are impressive numbers.”

Smith did the bulk of Missouri’s damage at the free throw line in the second half. All 14 of his free throw attempts came after the break. He converted 12 of them.

Smith experienced a bit of an offensive rough patch prior to Missouri’s 11-day break due to a positive COVID-19 test in early January. Since the team has resumed play, he’s looked like a different player. Martin said the coaching staff “got on him” about looking to score more frequently. He’s responded by scoring in double-figures six games in a row and averaging 17.7 points over that span.

“He’s been assertive offensively, and I think that’s what we need,” Martin said. “I didn’t understand why he wasn’t aggressive, but we needed him to be aggressive. It just happened to be 26 tonight, but he does a lot of other things. He gets in the paint, he makes plays to get other guys involved, he gets to the free throw line. I’m happy he played well.”

* The other Smith in the backcourt contributed some clutch buckets as well. Coming off the bench for the second game in a row, Mark Smith knocked down three three-pointers and hit a clutch pull-up two with Missouri leading by three points in the final minutes. Smith had been in a prolonged shooting slump entering Wednesday, scoring in double figures just twice over the past 10 games, but he not only scored 11 points against Kentucky, each of his baskets seemed to come in a big moment.

“It’s good to see him knock shots down,” Martin said. “I thought he had one where he missed one and I thought it was a great look for him, and I was happy he stepped up and shot it.”

After making two three-pointers in the first half, Mark Smith sank a three midway through the second to answer a five-point Kentucky run. Later in the half, Missouri hadn’t made a field goal in more than four minutes. Smith got the ball on the wing with the shot clock winding down. He got his defender in the air with a pump fake, drove to the free throw line and knocked down a fadeaway as the buzzer sounded. That started a six-nothing run for Missouri that sealed the victory.

* Against TCU on Saturday, Missouri got just five points from its bench players. But with Kentucky focusing its defense on Tilmon, the reserves played a large role in the victory over Kentucky.

The bench combined for 23 points. Mark Smith led all bench players in scoring with 11 points, but forwards Mitchell Smith and Parker Braun provided equally valuable minutes.

While Mitchell Smith may not have had his best night shooting the ball, his rebounding and defense proved vital. With both Tilmon and starting power forward Kobe Brown battling foul trouble in the second half, Smith played a season-high 28 minutes. He grabbed 12 rebounds and helped keep Kentucky’s trio of post players, all of whom stand at least 6-foot-9, in check.

“It was huge for us,” Dru Smith said of Mitchell Smith’s performance. “Mitch always comes in there and brings good energy, especially on the defensive end, and we were thankful for what he did tonight.”

Braun, meanwhile, played 12 minutes, one fewer than his season-high. He scored five points, including sinking a three-pointer in the first half, and also had three rebounds and a block.

“We knew early how they would defend Tilly, sending a double from the top, from the baseline, and we just have to get other production,” Martin said. “I thought Mitch helped out in a lot of ways. I thought Parker gave us big minutes as well.

“I think there’s way more that we can get from Mitch and Parker. No doubt in my mind. We feel as a staff there’s still more, a lot more, in those two guys that we can get from them.”

* Missouri had, uncharacteristically, struggled on the defensive end its past couple games. While Wednesday didn’t represent a flawless defensive effort, the Tigers did a much better job of keeping Kentucky’s guards from penetrating and getting easy scoring opportunities in the paint. They were especially good when it mattered most in the second half; in the final four-and-a-half minutes, the Wildcats committed four turnovers and made just three field goals.

“We’re just looking to get stops there in that last four minutes, after that last media,” Dru Smith said. “We’re just looking to get as many stops as we can and then just execute on the offensive end.”

Perhaps even more important than their on-ball defense, Missouri kept Kentucky from cashing in on its missed shots. The Wildcats entered the game ranked No. 30 nationally in offensive rebounding rate. Missouri limited them to just six offensive rebounds and two second-chance points.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT: Missouri got bailed out a bit by the frequent foul calls. Away from the free throw line, the Tiger offense struggled in the second half. Missouri started the half by missing eight shots in a row. The team then ended the game by shooting just two for its final eight. Overall, the Tigers shot just 33.3 percent from the floor and 20 percent from three-point range after the break. It’s tough to be too critical after a wire-to-wire win, but there will be times when Missouri needs to execute better down the stretch.

STAR OF THE GAME: Dru Smith not only carried the scoring load, he contributed his usual bevy of rebounds, assists and hustle plays as well. His ability to get to the line and convert kept Missouri afloat in the second half. When he’s playing well, the team seems to take on his calm, even-keeled demeanor.

“He plays on both ends, he competes, he gets rebounds, he assists, he’s a point guard, he’s a two-guard, he’ll guard the other team’s best guard or maybe a wing guy,” Martin said of Smith.

WHAT IT MEANS: Not only did this win mark just the second victory over Kentucky in Missouri’s 15 ever meetings with the Wildcats, it moved Missouri into second place by itself in the SEC standings. That only raises the stakes for Saturday, when No. 10 Alabama, which beat LSU Wednesday to improve to 10-0 in conference play, comes to town. Tipoff is set for 11 a.m. on ESPN.

QUOTABLE: “I just think they have a passion for each other. I think this is a team that really could care less who leads them in scoring, who does all that. I think they could care less about that, and they’ve gotten to a point where they’re able to challenge each other, and I think that’s where the biggest growth has come, they’re able to challenge each other where it’s not personal.” — Cuonzo Martin

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