(right) turned in a solid effort in the Wildcats
' victory over Missouri. (L.G. Patterson/AP)
At some point, it will be too late to talk about No. 11 Kentucky's potential. We may not have reached that point yet, but we’re getting close. In an 84-79 win Saturday at Missouri, we got a glimpse of where Kentucky is as a team right now. The Wildcats looked more like the elite squad many believed they could be than the disengaged group that suffered a five-point loss at LSU on Tuesday. Andrew and Aaron Harrison combined for 35 points on 10-of-18 shooting, including 3-of-5 from three-point range, while forward James Young went 4-of-7 from three and finished with 20 points.
The Wildcats jumped out to a 7-2 lead and carried a 10-point advantage into the break after each Harrison converted a field goal in the final two minutes of the first half. Kentucky stretched its lead to 16 over the first five minutes of the second frame, but Missouri pulled within three on an acrobatic, crowd-pumping dunk from Jabari Brown near the seven-minute mark. Eventually, Aaron Harrison countered a Jordan Clarkson layup with 49 seconds left with a nifty reverse finish that put the Wildcats up 82-77 and effectively sealed the game.
Over coach Frank Haith's two-plus seasons at Missouri, the Tigers had suffered just two losses in 45 games played at Mizzou Arena. That Kentucky, which was just 2-5 in games played away from Rupp Arena entering Saturday, was able to deal the Tigers their third home defeat of the Haith era is impressive.
“I loved the fight. I loved the emotion they played with, the enthusiasm they played with,” Wildcats coach John Calipari said afterward.
Rather than folding in a tough environment the way they did Tuesday in Baton Rouge, the Wildcats rose to the occasion to beat a quality opponent. Kentucky got key contributions from one player, Andrew Harrison, who has dealt with bouts of inconsistency this season and another, Aaron Harrison, who has now scored 50 points over his last three games. Freshman forward and likely future lottery pick Julius Randle bounced back from arguably his worst game of the season -- six points on 3-of-11 shooting against LSU -- to score 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting to go along with nine rebounds. Young showed how dangerous he can be when his jump shot is falling.
The Wildcats didn’t play a perfect game. Brown went off for 33 points, and Clarkson 28. Kentucky allowed the Tigers to claw their way back into the game in the second half, and the Wildcats didn't play nearly as well after the break as they did before it. But Kentucky looked much better than it did against LSU, and that’s what matters. The Wildcats should be able to build on this win over the next couple of weeks, as they face a home test against Ole Miss and road trips to Mississippi State and Auburn. Kentucky sits just 1.5 games back of first-place Florida, who plays Texas A&M on Saturday, in the SEC standings.
Between now and Kentucky’s Feb. 15 meeting with the Gators at Rupp Arena, it will be crucial for the Wildcats not to relinquish the positive momentum they’ve generated by picking up one of their best wins of the season. They are talented enough to be great, but they have yet to realize their potential. Kentucky hasn’t played well consistently enough to further its development to a significant extent. Beating Missouri is a positive step, but the Wildcats need to continue to play well in the coming weeks.
There have been times this season when Kentucky has looked like an awkward assemblage of talented individual parts. On Saturday, it channeled that talent productively. The result was an efficient team-wide effort, the type Kentucky will look to replicate and build upon in future games. This is a dangerous team with a high ceiling. Watching the Wildcats try to reach that ceiling between now and March will be fascinating.
This wasn’t a make-or-break game for Missouri, but winning it certainly would have helped the Tigers’ chances of making the NCAA tournament. Saturday was the beginning of a tough five-game stretch for the Tigers. Next up: at Florida, at Ole Miss, Arkansas and Tennessee. Three of those teams have a good shot to earn at-large bids. Missouri can put itself in position to do the same if it regroups from Saturday’s missed opportunity and plays well over the next four games.