By Les Johns | @KernelJohns
It was a risk that paid off.
ESPN featured a beleaguered conference and what many thought was a broken team for its GameDay program and marquee evening college basketball matchup.
The teams (and crowd) delivered an overtime classic that secured a quality win for the Cats, putting them on the good side of the proverbial NCAA tournament bubble — at least for now.
Missouri is good at virtually every position, and is a team that could easily make it to the second week of the tournament.
It has six players averaging in double-figures and features one of the best point guards in all of college basketball.
Missouri junior guard Phil Pressey dazzled Saturday, scoring 27 points and dishing 10 assists, breaking down UK defenders at will.
“Pressey is one of the best point guards you’ll see, plus he made shots today so it made it even tougher,” UK head coach John Calipari said. “We tried everything, showing hard, walling up, switching, big guy on him, small guy on him. He still had his way.”
Senior Missouri transfer Alex Oriakhi, who many thought would transfer to UK for this season, secured a double-double with 16 points and 15 rebounds.
What a difference maker he could have been for the Cats this season, especially considering the circumstances.
Counteracting the Tiger tandem took an all-out team effort, and nearly every Cat contributed in his own way.
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin scored 18 points after being held scoreless in the first half.
“I love how Archie got us going in the second half,” Calipari said.
Freshman forward Willie Cauley-Stein grabbed a career-high-tying 12 rebounds and also blocked a career-high seven shots.
Freshman forward Alex Poythress had his most beastly game to date, attacking the basket with authority en route to 21 points and seven rebounds.
“I tried to make plays,” Poythress said. “I just wanted to play hard for my team.”
Sophomore Ryan Harrow scored 16 points, had six assists and grabbed eight big rebounds from the guard position.
“Ryan played well again,” Calipari said. “We win games if he plays like that.”
Graduate student guard Julius Mays was both a scorer and a leader. He scored 24 points on 4-of-8 shooting behind the arc and 8-of-9 from the free-throw line.
“Julius is incredible,” Poythress said. “On and off the court he is always there to help us when we are in need. We look up to him for guidance. He always knows the right things to say.”
More important than all the statistics and individual accolades is that the team “fought like Wildcats,” as freshman forward Nerlens Noel exhorts them to do in the player introduction video.
If there was a loose ball, you were likely to see a Cat (or multiple Cats) sprawled out in its pursuit. As Calipari reviews the game tape, he will be able to pinpoint several “effort” plays that directly led to points for the Cats.
The Tigers came into the game as the second best rebounding team in the country. The Cats outrebounded them, 41-39.
“They were the aggressive team and I think again, in the second half, they got to every loose ball, every 50-50 ball,” Missouri head coach Frank Haith said. “That was the difference in the game with how they came out with great toughness in the second half.”
The raucous home crowd and great individual performances were vital, but the Cats wouldn’t have beaten Missouri Saturday night with anything less than perfect effort.
Even with all that on the Cats’ side, it came down to just a handful of players in the overtime period.
With the game tied at 79 in the final two minutes of overtime, Calipari assigned Goodwin to shadow Pressey, who had been terrorizing UK defenders the entire game.
“Coach wanted me to get into him and make it hard on him,” Goodwin said. “Give him a different look. Just putting me on him put a little more length on him.”
A fresh face and a size differential made an impact, as Goodwin forced a long-distance Pressey miss and then a turnover to help the Cats break through and regain the lead.
“He tried to shoot one and had to change his shot, then we got a steal,” Goodwin said. “He is the key to their team. When you have a guy like that, the best thing you can do is try to get him out of the sync of things.”
ESPN captured Rupp Arena in all its glory Saturday — intense action, a lively crowd, a team fighting for its tournament life, incredible individual performances and a fantastic finish.
Not bad for a “down” conference and for a team many had already written off.