Kentucky’s vaunted freshman class showed Saturday at Mizzou Arena why it’s considered by some to be the best recruiting class in college basketball history.
Each of the Wildcats’ freshmen who starts regularly took a turn pulling the sled as coach John Calipari’s team mushed to an 84-79 victory against Missouri.
“They’ve got so much talent,” Tigers coach Frank Haith said. “Those guys will all be playing for pay, and they come off the bench with those guys too. They’re an extremely talented team.”
Playing in Columbia for the first time, the Wildcats — 16-5 overall, 6-2 in the SEC and now 6-0 all-time against the Tigers — jumped in front early behind star freshman forward Julius Randle and powered to a 10-point lead at intermission behind freshman point guard Andrew Harrison’s 12 first-half points.
Late in the first half, freshman James Young got in the act with two baskets, including a three-pointer, during a 12-2 Kentucky run.
Young, who finished with 20 points and hit four of seven from long range, remained hot early in the second half, adding eight points as the Wildcats’ lead ballooned to 59-43 on a three-pointer by freshman Aaron Harrison, who finished with a team-high 21 and scored 13 in the second half.
“They were determined,” Haith said. “They played hard and they competed. They were on their game. I thought the Harrison twins both played great and obviously Young made the shots. Julius does what he does. I thought they played great.”
It stood in stark contrast to Kentucky’s tepid effort Tuesday in a loss at LSU.
And the final result might have been much worse for Missouri, 16-5 and 4-4 in the SEC, were it not for juniors Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson, who combined for 61 points, including 26 of the Tigers’ last 29 points during the final 11:25.
“We were in position to make plays,” Brown said. “It wasn’t in my mind to take over. I’m just trying to win. Whatever it takes to win, I’m going to try to do it and I feel like Jordan’s probably thinking the same thing.”
On a night when the Tigers’ frontcourt totaled three points and 12 rebounds, Brown, who finished with a career-high 33 points, and Clarkson, who scored 28, almost willed Missouri past Kentucky anyway, giving the crowd of 11,742 that braved slick roads to attend the game plenty to cheer about.
Brown and Clarkson combined for 36 points in the second half as the Tigers nearly erased that 16-point deficit, pulling as close as three points on two occasions in the closing minutes.
“We got some stops, we got some run-outs, we got some easy layups,” Clarkson said. “We were just playing hard. We’re a talented team and we weren’t fitting to just let them blow us out.”
Mizzou Arena went bonkers when freshman Wes Clark went coast-to-coast with a steal and finished with a finger roll between two Wildcats defenders for a layup that pulled the Tigers back within 59-49.
Brown then capped a 16-4 spurt with an old-fashioned three-point play, which drew Missouri, which has lost two of the last four at home after a 26-game win streak, within four points. He was just getting warmed up.
The Tigers trailed by five coming out of a timeout with 7:16 remaining when Brown drove down the lane and dunked on Randle, trimming the Tigers’ deficit to 66-63. That was as close as Missouri would get.
“It was a momentum play, but I know they’re a good team and I knew they weren’t going to let that rattle them,” Brown said. “I knew we were going to have to keep getting stops and unfortunately we didn’t get enough of them.”
The Wildcats stretched the lead back to seven when sophomore Alex Poythress got free on a pick-and-roll for a dunk off a feed from Andrew Harrison, who dished a game-high four assists.
That meant Brown’s four-point play on a 25-foot three-pointer and foul with 1:30 remaining only drew Missouri back within three points again at 78-75.
Next, Randle — who finished with 18 points, nine rebounds and three steals — and Clarkson traded baskets before Aaron Harrison beat Brown along the baseline for a reverse layup that helped seal the victory.
“I thought our defense is what let us down a little bit tonight,” Haith said. “Although, I will give Kentucky a lot of credit. They made some shots and did a nice job with their offense.”
Kentucky, which entered the game shooting only 32.3 percent from three-point range, connected on eight of 14 from long range and shot 53.6 percent — 30 of 56 — overall.