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UK Holds On for Important Win at Missouri

This article appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by James Pennington. KY Forward's coverage of UK Athletics is sponsored by Republic Bank.

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Twenty-one games into Kentucky’s season, it’s tough to pin down what the Wildcats are. Variance will happen from game to game, of course, but Kentucky’s swings are so wide and so sudden, it’s nearly impossible to have any idea what any given player or the team as a whole will do the next time out.

What Kentucky did in its 84-79 win over Missouri was flex its muscles a bit, engaging the capable Tigers in a shootout without paying a whole lot of mind to the paint. Missouri’s strength is its guard play, and the Wildcats could have mined the paint for as many points as it wanted.

Whether or not that was the plan, it didn’t work out that way; Dakari Johnson started for the first time this season and was on the bench with two fouls in less than four minutes, and Willie Cauley-Stein further dug into his current slump with no points and no rebounds in seven ineffectual minutes. That Kentucky overcame Cauley-Stein’s and Johnson’s shortcomings, on the road in an arena in which Missouri has lost only four games during Frank Haith’s tenure, tells a much different story than what happened Tuesday at LSU.

Tuesday, Kentucky was run out of the gym, and that’s the most polite and least controversial way of describing that night’s events. John Calipari said he responded this week in practice by asking his players to focus on the abstract ideas that seemed to cost them Tuesday’s game: passion, emotion, teamwork.

All of that poured out in the first half when Dominique Hawkins was fouled. He hit the deck after a relatively light foul, and Andrew Harrison sprinted from across the court to help him up. It was as if Hawkins on fire. He was not, but Harrison and the other three Wildcats convened around him for a quick huddle, and it was right back to the stream of the game.

Like the very concepts Calipari hounded in practice in the days since returning from Baton Rouge, that moment was symbolic more than anything. Hawkins wasn’t on fire, and he could have helped himself up. But Johnson had to help himself up late in the game against LSU—a play on which he injured his hip and had to miss practice Thursday—and it became a Thing that signaled the Wildcats didn’t care for their teammates in a dejected moment of embarrassment on LSU’s floor.

When Harrison helped up Hawkins, it was as if he was trying to prove—either outwardly or inwardly, and which it really was is irrelevant—the team wasn’t a fractured mess about to shatter into a bunch of pieces in another shatterable moment. The team rallied together, saying to each other and signaling to those watching that they wanted to be Saturday’s version of Kentucky and not Tuesday’s.

Harrison’s notion would have felt hollow if the team didn’t band together to fight off Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson in the final few minutes of the second half. Brown finished with 33 points, and Clarkson had 28. Brown rallied Missouri with a dunk over Julius Randle and later a four-point play that put the Tigers within a single possession with 90 seconds to go.

One version of Kentucky wouldn’t have withstood two searing-hot shooting hands and the weight of a screaming arena pulling it to the ground, but guessing which version of the Wildcats will show up is a fruitless exercise. What the Wildcats are is an average, a bunch of statistics that try to say something definitive about a team that seems to act and play differently each time out. What they are is whatever they decide to be any given day, which worked out well Saturday when it didn’t have to.

Photo: No. 11 Kentucky was at the best version of itself in an 84-79 win over Missouri on Saturday. (Photo by James Pennington)