LEXINGTON, Ky. – Kentucky’s teetering postseason hopes got a major boost Saturday as the Wildcats held off Missouri for a gritty 90-83 overtime win at raucous Rupp Arena.
Senior guard Julius Mays scored a career-high 24 points in playing all but one minute of the memorable first Southeastern Conference meeting between the Wildcats and Tigers.
“It was a lot of fun,” Mays said. “Obviously, we would have rather won in regulation, but to come out with the win and for guys that played as hard as they did and fought, battled and not give up, it was good.”
Kentucky (19-8, 10-4 SEC) also got 21 points from freshman forward Alex Poythress, but it was a game that required a little bit from almost everyone on the UK roster to produce a much-needed “quality win” for the Wildcats’ NCAA résumé.
Freshman guard Archie Goodwin scored all of his 18 points after halftime for Kentucky, which had once trailed by 13. Sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow delivered 16 points and six assists. And freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein, stepping up big in place of injured star Nerlens Noel, had seven points, 12 rebounds and a career-high seven blocked shots.
“It was one of those gut-it-out games,” UK coach John Calipari said. “… What I told them after – what I've been trying to tell them all year – guys, if you miss a shot or turn it over or break down defensively, forget about it, and just keep battling. They did a lot of that today.
“We got better today. We showed some things that now we know we can do. They're having confidence.”
A huge key to Kentucky’s comeback was turning the tables on the glass. Missouri (19-8, 8-6 SEC) entered the game No. 2 nationally in rebounding margin and showed why with a 27-18 edge at halftime, but the Wildcats won the battle 23-12 in the second half and overtime to finish with a 41-39 advantage.
It was a gang effort. In addition to Cauley-Stein’s dozen boards, UK got 17 combined from the starting backcourt of Harrow (8), Mays (6) and Goodwin (3). Poythress also chipped in with seven.
“We have to do that,” Calipari said.
"I thought they really played with great toughness," Missouri coach Frank Haith said of the Wildcats. "They were way more aggressive than us.
"I think, again, in the second half, they got to every loose ball, every 50-50 ball, and that was the difference in the game with how they came out with great toughness in the second half.”
Missouri looked poised for an elusive road victory early in the contest. The Tigers entered the game 1-6 on the road this season, but led by 13 with 4:55 remaining in the first half.
Kentucky responded with a 9-0 run to pull within 28-24 and kept the margin at four entering halftime.
Alex Poythress slammed in two of his 21 points against Missouri. (FOX Sports Photo by Jeff Drummond.)
The Wildcats opened the second half with a 3-pointer by Goodwin, his first points of the night and his first shot made behind the arc since Jan. 12 against Texas A&M. He followed that with a steal and runout dunk to give UK a 36-35 lead and send the crowd of 24,380 into a frenzy.
“I wasn’t really aggressive in the first half,” Goodwin said. “Coach just told me come out strong in the second half, just gave me encouragement.
“It was pretty hard to beat that second half I played. And I don’t even like speaking high of myself, so that just lets you know how I feel about it.”
The lead would change hands seven times before the final minute of regulation. A Phil Pressey layup put Missouri ahead 75-73 with 57 seconds to go. Cauley-Stein responded with post basket at the :41 mark to tie the game for the fifth time in the second half. Pressey missed a challenged drive to the basket with seven seconds remaining that could have won the game for the Tigers.
Pressey, who led Missouri with a game-high 27 points, gave the Tigers leads of 77-75 and 79-77 in overtime, but Kentucky kept coming up with answers. Goodwin’s driving layup with 1:06 to go gave the Wildcats the lead for good. Poythress, Harrow and Mays combined to hit eight consecutive free throws in the final minute to seal the hard-fought victory after UK had hit only 12 of 22 free throws in regulation.
Calipari credited the Rupp Arena crowd with helping his team secure an important victory.
“This was as good a crowd and as impactful a crowd as I've ever coached in the building,” he said. “This team needs that. Like the next game, they need to come back and do that again. Then that last game, they need to do exactly the same thing.
“We need that extra (support) that pushes us through a missed shot, a turnover, where we get by it quicker. But that was a great crowd, as good as we've had.”
• Kentucky leads the all-time series with Missouri 5-0 with three wins coming in Lexington.
• The Wildcats are 2-0 in overtime games this season.
• UK is 10-0 this season when shooting better than 50 percent. The Cats were 30 of 59 (51 percent) against Missouri.
• The Wildcats return to action Wednesday in the last of a three-game homestand. Tipoff against Mississippi State is at 8 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.