Cuonzo Martin is hard to please. He only vocalizes much excitement in the immediate moments after a big play, and he often says each of his 201 wins means just as much to him.
He showed that about 30 minutes after his Missouri team beat No. 21 Kentucky 69-60 on Saturday.
The Tigers (15-8 overall, 5-5 in the SEC) had never beaten the Wildcats (17-6, 6-4) before, and Martin thought that was — well actually he said he did not even know that. He did not really care either.
“I’m attacking them all the same,” he said. “I don’t care who you are. If you start attacking who’s different, who’s better, you’re on a rollercoaster.”
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His team seems to have taken heed to the mentality. A week ago, after the Tigers had lost to Mississippi State, a loss that pushed the Tigers’ losing streak to three games, their NCAA Tournament chances appeared to be rather dim. But now, after winning at Alabama and beating Kentucky, Mizzou has played itself onto the proper side of the tournament bubble.
“He’s brought things out of us all that we didn’t even know we had in ourselves,” junior forward Kevin Puryear said of Martin.
This game was once supposed to be about Michael Porter Jr. facing Kevin Knox, who had taken an official visit to MU before choosing Kentucky.
Instead, though, Porter Jr., the star freshman who has played just 2 minutes this season because of a back injury, was on the bench. And Knox, the Wildcats’ leading scorer this season, finished with just five points on 2-of-6 shooting. Mizzou fans booed Knox whenever he touched the ball.
“I wanted to make him work,” Martin said after pausing for a moment to grin about the performance of a recruit who rejected the Tigers.
Kentucky found little help elsewhere. Coach John Calipari’s team — the least experienced one he has ever coached — reverted to isolation offense. The Wildcats recorded just nine assists, and they shot just 31.3 percent from the field. They made just 2 of 20 three-pointers.
“Trying everything,” Calipari said of getting his players to pass. “It’s obviously not working.”
The Wildcats’ 18 first-half points were the fewest they had scored in a first half since a November 2008 game against West Virginia. They had not scored fewer in any half since Calipari became the coach.
Kentucky missed 13 straight field goals to help Mizzou go on a 10-0 run that ended on a Jontay Porter three-pointer midway through the first half. The Tigers led by 10 points at the halftime.
“I thought we had our chances at the start of the second half,” Calipari said. “... All of the sudden and you look up, it’s nine. What just happened?”
Forgive Calipari for forgetting. After Kentucky trimmed the lead to one point, the Tigers’ 8-0 run early in the second half that pushed the Wildcats away only lasted 50 seconds.
Porter hit a three. Cullen VanLeer stole the ball, leading to a Porter fastbreak layup. Jordan Barnett — who tied Kassius Robertson with a team-high 16 points — hit another three-pointer moments later.
Martin has said the Tigers need production from the power-forward position to be successful, and on Saturday they received it. Porter and Puryear combined for 20 points and 13 rebounds.
Puryear grabbed offensive rebounds on consecutive possessions midway through the second half. After the first one, he found Barnett cutting to the basket for a dunk. After the second one, he connected with Robertson at the top of the key for an open three-pointer that put Missouri up 49-38.
The lead grew to 14 after that, when Barnett made a step-back jumper through a foul and hit the free throw that followed.
“That was pro-like for sure,” Puryear said.
Martin’s first season at Missouri has been about changing attitudes. He has never wanted his players to settle for already surpassing their win totals from any of the past three seasons, and the Tigers have said they needed to learn how to close out games.
Kentucky had come back from double-digit second half deficits to win each of its previous two games, and six Missouri turnovers after that Barnett step-back seemed like it might aid in another. Mizzou struggled at first with Kentucky’s press — Porter turned the ball over after falling to pass half court with it in 10 seconds — and the Tigers went more than 6 minutes without a field goal.
But Missouri converted 16 of its 19 free-throw attempts in the second half. Robertson — who seemed to benefit from the Wildcats mistakenly fouling when Calipari did not want them to — made eight straight free throws in the final 2-plus minutes.
Kentucky never trimmed the lead to fewer than five points in the final minutes.
“We know what we can do,” Robertson said. “We don’t need just these wins to tell us that. We know when we’re in the gym practicing. We see it. … I’m confident we can go up against anyone in the country when we play like that.”