COLUMBIA, Mo. — Kentucky coach John Calipari’s team confounds him.
The No. 11 Wildcats capped off a week of two road games Saturday with an 84-79 win over Missouri on Saturday, just a few days after Kentucky lost Tuesday to LSU and cast several questions about its ability and fight.
Those questions were not there Saturday, as Kentucky had to stave off first-half foul trouble and a dazzling second-half Tigers push in which guard Jabari Brown and guard Jordan Clarkson put on a show at Mizzou Arena that would have toppled a team not well-suited to face adversity.
Day to day, Calipari still does not know which version of his team will show up.
“Well, the team I want them to be is the one that played today,” Calipari said. “And I told them, ‘If I have to coach like I was 35 years old again, I will.’ Which, I was very much more aggressive, hands-on. Do you know what I mean by hands-on? Like grabbing. I was hands-on.
“I’m now 49, so I’m not as aggressive as I used to be,” he said, laughing because he turns 55 next week. “But I told them, ‘My teams play with fire. They play with emotion. They play with enthusiasm. And you will, or I won’t play you.’ “
Whatever questions were lingering from the Wildcats’ loss to LSU on Tuesday were quickly answered against Missouri. Kentucky (16-5, 6-2 SEC) opened the game with a five-point lead at the first media timeout. Despite getting close, Missouri did not get back the lead in the first half after it opened the game up 2-0.
Missouri (16-5, 4-4) closed the gap in the first half to 28-26 with five minutes to go, but that is when the Wildcats’ offense woke up. Kentucky ended the first half on a 12-6 run, and their three perimeter players — point guard Andrew Harrison, shooting guard Aaron Harrison and small forward James Young — scored all 12 points in that span.
The Tigers could not mount a run for the early part of the second half; Kentucky’s defense was forcing tough shots and playing freely after centers Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein spent much of the first half benched with two fouls each.
Then midway through the second half, the light came on for Brown. He was very good in the first half — he had 11 points — but he single-handedly put Missouri back in the game with his hot hand.
Missouri went on a 16-4 run over a five-minute span, and Brown scored eight of those points. He then scored four more unanswered to bring Missouri to within 66-63.
Missouri never got closer than those three points.
Brown finished with a game-high 33 points, and Missouri guard Jordan Clarkson finished with 28. The two combined to shoot 21 of 34 from the floor.
“As long as we play that way, and consistently, we’ll be OK offensively,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “I thought our defense let us down a little bit tonight. Although, give Kentucky a lot of credit. They made some shots and did a nice job with their offense.”
Guard Aaron Harrison led the Wildcats with 21 points and power forward Julius Randle finished with 18 points and nine rebounds.
Kentucky’s 53.6 field-goal percentage was its best in SEC play.
Kentucky was the preseason favorite to win the SEC, and it is two games behind first-place Florida nearly halfway into the league’s 18-game schedule. Any notion that the Wildcats can show up and win wherever they played has long since disappeared. But after road losses to Arkansas and LSU, the Wildcats needed a win Saturday to restore some of the aura around them.
“We can’t take anybody for granted,” Randle said. “But we knew after the LSU game we had to come back strong, we had to come back more prepared and focused, so that’s what we had to do.”
NOTES: Kentucky has won both games over the Tigers since Missouri joined the SEC before last season. … Saturday’s game was Kentucky’s first playing at Missouri in school history. … Freshman C Dakari Johnson got his first career start Saturday. He finished with two points and one rebound in 11 minutes.
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