In a pregame exchange, Cuonzo Martin told John Calipari he admired how hard the Wildcats play but that struggling Missouri wasn’t going to roll over against mighty Kentucky.
Mizzou didn’t. The Wildcats got out with a 66-58 triumph that meant something to both sides.
For Kentucky, style points don’t apply for a road victory, especially one that followed a hyped and emotional conquest of top-ranked Tennessee. Calipari just wanted to skip town with a victory, although weather delayed the Wildcats’ trip back to Lexington, Ky., until Wednesday.
“I told our team at halftime they’re going to be playing with house money, they’re going to make some shots and make two or three runs at us,” Calipari said. “You win on the road in this league you got something done.”
For Missouri, which looked the part of the bottom-feeder SEC squad for much of the night, shaving a 20-point deficit to six in the game’s final 15 minutes continues a theme for Cuonzo Martin’s second team.
This is a max effort team no matter the circumstance.
With an overall record of 12-13, Missouri fell under .500 for the first time this season, and the notion of competition beyond the conference tournament grows more distant.
But to suggest playing hard and continuing to buy in is an admirable quality for a team that has dropped 10 of its 13 SEC games and sits in 12th place is taken as an insult by Martin.
His response: Fight no matter the circumstance or find another team.
“This is what you do when you’re on scholarship,” Martin said. “You’re part of a program. It’s what you’re supposed to do or you find a new program. If you’re not buying in you’ve got to relocate...This is what you’re supposed to do. Give everything you’ve got. I mean, you’re on scholarship. Somebody is paying for your school. The least you can do is play hard.”
So, instead of a huge deficit souring a night in which the program retired the jersey of career scoring leader Derrick Chievous, Mizzou chipped away and gave fans who stuck it out reason to cheer.
Big man Jeremiah Tilmon proved again what his presence means. He finished with only six points and five rebounds. But while he was on the floor and not sitting with foul trouble, the Tigers outscored Kentucky by seven.
Jordan Geist, Torrance Watson and most notably Ronnie Suggs each buried two triples in the second half. Suggs was particularly active and his 13 points led the team in scoring for the first time in a Mizzou uniform.
Through it all and throughout the season, Missouri didn’t back down and made its opponent play until the final buzzer.
“I’ve watched all the tapes,” Calipari, the Kentucky coach, said. “They fight like heck.”
Still, Tuesday provided another loss in what became an uphill season after the team lost star Jontay Porter in October with a torn ACL and MCL.
To lose a Porter brother for a second straight season is a cruel twist. Last year’s team that played without elder brother Michael Porter for all but three games had a stronger roster and found its way to the NCAA Tournament.
This Mizzou team was picked ninth in the SEC, and that was before Jontay Porter’s injury. But the Tigers gave fans hope for a month. Remember December?
Six games, six victories, starting with the overtime thriller over a Central Florida team that might be headed to the NCAA. Xavier and Illinois fell and it was time to play the what-if game with the league schedule. Spilt the league games and a NCAA berth seemed assured.
But the Tigers never gained traction in a conference that could go eight deep in NCAA berths. How quickly can things change in college hoops? Missouri defeated Kentucky and Tennessee last season. This year the Tigers are 0-3 against those opponents, which reside in the nation’s top five. Meanwhile, Mizzou sits in the SEC’s bottom three.
Five conference games remain for Missouri, time enough for an uplifting finish. The record argues against such a conclusion. But a team that competes to the final horn gives itself a chance against any opponent.