Mizzou no match for Kentucky, drops third straight

February 25, 2018

LEXINGTON, KY. • It wasn’t the never-in-doubt mismatch that quickly unfolded the last two times Mizzou visited Rupp Arena, but with their season trending the wrong direction and their sputtering NCAA Tournament profile needing a late jumpstart, the Tigers didn’t exactly inspire confidence with Saturday’s 87-66 loss, their most lopsided defeat of the season.

Mizzou’s last two visits here in 2015 and 2016 were never competitive, losses by 49 and 34 points, respectively. By that standard, this one was more evenly matched, but the Tigers rarely played with the same grit and polish from their 69-60 win over the same Wildcats three weeks earlier in Columbia.

“What we lacked more than anything else was a level of toughness,” Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin said. “In that department, they won the battle. They set a tone and made tough shots.”

It helped that Kentucky freshman forwards P.J. Washington (12 points, five rebounds) and Jared Vanderbilt (11 points, 15 rebounds) clearly outplayed Mizzou’s frontcourt tandem of freshman bigs as both Jeremiah Tilmon and Jontay Porter fouled out and combined for just nine points.

Kentucky freshman forward Kevin Knox, a non-factor in UK’s loss at Mizzou three weeks ago, led six Wildcats in double figures with 21 points. UK’s 62.5 percent from 3-point range marked a season high.

“Right before your eyes,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said, “we’re becoming a better basketball team.”

Mizzou is officially trending the other direction. With their third straight loss, the Tigers (18-11, 8-8 SEC) fell back into a tie with Alabama for seventh place in the conference, while Kentucky (20-9, 9-7) stayed in the third-place logjam with Arkansas, Florida and Mississippi State. Projected as a No. 7 seed in the latest NCAA Tournament projections, Mizzou didn’t spoil its tourney credentials with Saturday’s loss but can’t continue to spiral, starting with Tuesday’s game at Vanderbilt.

An hour before tipoff Saturday, it looked like the Tigers might get some much-needed help off the bench. Freshman forward Michael Porter Jr., out since having back surgery in November, returned to practice on Friday and took part in pregame shooting on Saturday, wearing the team’s official anthracite game jersey and a T-shirt, perhaps a signal he would make his much-anticipated return. But when the Tigers came out of the locker room for the last time before tipoff, Porter was back in sweats and back on the bench. It’s uncertain when — or if — he’ll play his next game. After Tuesday’s game in Nashville, MU closes the regular season next Saturday against Arkansas.

“He was part of one practice (on Friday),” Martin said. “We only went for about 45 minutes. We weren’t doing a lot of contact stuff. He was part of the shootaround today. He’ll practice tomorrow (Sunday) at the level we’re practicing at. It won’t be a lot. Really, we wanted to make sure he was healthy from the standpoint of being able to take contact, bumping, banging and jumping and going through extra things.

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“I don’t have a timeline,” he added. “The most important thing is he’s healthy and able to play in games. In his case he wants to play and I think that’s a good thing about it. We have to make sure he’s ready to go from my standpoint, the doctor, the trainer and watching him in practice. We need to try to put him in some live-game situations.”

The Tigers could have used Porter’s scoring touch Saturday. Outside of Kassius Robertson (26 points) and, to some degree, Jordan Barnett (11), the rest of Martin’s rotation struggled to generate scoring. Tilmon lasted only 13 minutes before fouling out and matched his five points with five turnovers. Jontay Porter never looked comfortable against UK’s frontcourt and fouled out with four points on 1-of-8 shooting.

After shooting just 2 of 20 from 3-point range in the first matchup Feb. 3, Kentucky quickly warmed up from deep, hitting four of its first five attempts to grab an early 16-8 lead. The Tigers snapped out of their typical early haze and answered with an 8-0 run on back-to-back Robertson 3-pointers.

The pace picked up midway through the half, and while the Tigers continued to attack the Cats inside, even with Tilmon on the bench with two fouls, UK stayed hot on the perimeter, hitting two more 3s from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Quade Green. UK broke another tie with a 7-0 run, again connecting on jump shots, an 18-footer from Green followed by a 3-pointer from Wenyen Gabriel. Nine of UK’s first 10 field goals came on jumpers.

In the half’s final minutes, UK discovered its transition game. And that can be scary for any opponent. First, Washington snagged a halfcourt lob from Gilgeous-Alexander and dunked over a few helpless Tigers. Green and Hamidou Diallo continued the late onslaught with uncontested scores in transition.

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Ahead 44-32 at the break, the Wildcats didn’t let up in the second half and controlled the boards on both ends of the floor, finishing with a 36-32 rebounding edge. Knox, booed every time he touched the ball back in Columbia, scorched the team that recruited him last spring and scored 16 of his 21 points in the second half.

Porter Jr. was Knox’s primary recruiter when the Tampa, Fla., native had a brief tryst with the Tigers in the spring, but while they haven’t kept in touch much this season, Knox said he’s prayed for Porter Jr. to make a healthy return.

“I was hoping he’d be able to get in (the game) a little bit ... and I hope he gets in a game this year,” he said. “I’d love to watch him play.”

With the chances getting scarce, Mizzou fans surely feel the same.

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