It was a situation Missouri has been in so many times before. A tight game, on the road, and the result would come down to some simple factors: Could the Tigers get a stop? And could they keep their composure and execute offensively down the stretch?
Once again, the answer to both questions was a frustrating no for the Tigers, who faded in overtime Saturday and dropped a prime-time, nationally televised showdown against Kentucky 90-83 in front of an announced crowd of 24,380 at Rupp Arena.
Much like narrow road losses to LSU, Texas A&M and Arkansas, Missouri hung in the game late, only to be undone, at least in part, by their inability to get a stop and avoid turnovers. The former falls on the whole team — Kentucky shot nearly 51 percent from the field. But point guard Phil Pressey — who turned in a stellar 27-point, 10-assist, four-turnover effort — again played a part in the latter, though Missouri coach Frank Haith wanted to hear none of it.
“We’re not even in the game if it’s not for his play,” said Haith, whose team dropped to 1-7 on the road.
In fact, for much of the game, which featured eight ties and 10 lead changes, it appeared Pressey would play the part of hero. Kentucky had no answer for him, as Pressey repeatedly drove to the rim, made open shots and found open men for easy baskets for Missouri, which led by 13 points in the first half and 35-31 going into the break.
When Kentucky rallied in the second half behind a renewed commitment to getting out in transition and rebounding, it was Pressey who helped lead Missouri back.
Suddenly unable to attack the rim the way it had in the first half, Missouri watched the Wildcats take a 57-52 lead midway through the second half. But Pressey quickly heated up, racking up 10 points and four assists over the rest of the half. Two of the assists led to baskets by forward Laurence Bowers and guard Keion Bell that tied the game at 71-71 with fewer than 2 minutes to play.
Kentucky took a two-point lead when guard Julius Mays, who scored a team-high 24 points, drew Bowers’ fifth foul with 1 minute, 31 seconds left and made both free throws. Missouri answered with two free throws by forward Tony Criswell, and after a defensive stop, Pressey sped down court and made a layup that put Missouri ahead 75-73 with 55 seconds left.
Missouri could have pulled away at that point; all it needed was a timely stop. But like all the other road losses, it didn’t come. Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein, an Olathe Northwest grad, made a game-tying layup. Cauley-Stein finished with seven points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks. Missouri dribbled the clock down until Pressey’s driving layup was rejected, and after a half-court heave by Kentucky missed the mark, the game went into overtime.
Pressey continued his hot play, opening overtime with two baskets. But Kentucky answered each time, and the Wildcats took an 81-79 lead when freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who scored all 18 of his points after halftime, got free on a backdoor cut with a minute left.
That’s when the wheels came off for Missouri. Pressey got caught in the air and turned it over on Missouri’s next possession, and Alex Poythress, who had 21 points, made two free throws and extended the lead to four. A jumper by Pressey cut the deficit to two with 43 seconds left, but Kentucky’s Ryan Harrow responded with two free throws. After a deep three by Pressey fell off the mark, Mays added two more free throws for an 87-81 lead with 33 seconds left.
The Wildcats protected their lead from there and improved to 19-8 overall and 10-4 in the SEC, while Missouri dropped to 19-8 and 8-6. The win serves as an important NCAA Tournament resume builder for Kentucky, which is 2-1 since it lost star center Nerlens Noel for the season because of a knee injury.
For Missouri, it was an opportunity lost, a chance to earn a signature road win just days after a massive 63-60 home win over No. 5 Florida.
Afterward, Haith lamented the way his team was outrebounded 23-12 after halftime, a stat that leads him to believe his Tigers were essentially outtoughed, despite the strong play of senior forward Alex Oriakhi, who racked up 15 rebounds and 16 points.
“They definitely dominated that part of the game in the second half,” Haith said.
Even still, the Tigers almost pulled it out, thanks in large part to the brilliance of Pressey, who navigated the pick-and-roll so well Saturday that Kentucky coach John Calipari admitted that no matter what the Wildcats did — go under, go over, switch on him, trap him — Pressey had an answer.
“We tried everything,” Calipari said.
“They went to him, and it (led to) big points. The good news is it was eight less than they needed.”