Strong defense pushes Missouri to 69-60 victory over Kentucky

Missouri held the Wildcats to just two 3-pointers en route to the program’s first win over Kentucky.

Maneater File Photo

It was exactly how Cuonzo Martin drew it up.

Senior Jordan Barnett was excellent from the 3-point line, freshman Jeremiah Tilmon stayed out of foul trouble and Mizzou Arena was loud all game long.

But more importantly, his Missouri Tigers were nothing short of dominant defensively, playing a full 40 minutes of scrappy, poised and intelligent basketball en route to a 69-60 victory over the No. 21 Kentucky Wildcats Saturday afternoon. It was the team’s first win against Kentucky in program history.

Barnett tied with graduate transfer Kassius Robertson for the team high in points with 16. After the game, Barnett said Missouri’s level of effort was what allowed the team to pull out the victory.

“We carried on from what we did in the last game against Bama,” Barnett said. “We competed, we defended really well … Our level of competitiveness has gone up and I think it’s showing on the court.”

Missouri’s game plan was to force Kentucky to get the ball into the paint and face Missouri’s big men tandem of Tilmon, freshman Jontay Porter and sophomore Reed Nikko. It was well-executed. The Tigers closed out on Kentucky’s shooters all afternoon, holding the team to 31.3 percent shooting from the field and 2 of 20 from the 3-point line. The Wildcats also shot 16-for-26 from the free-throw line and scored just 18 points in the first half, the lowest-scoring half for the team since 2008.

Barnett said Missouri executed defensively the way it’s wanted to all season long.

“Everybody was helping each other and we were taking charges,” he said. “We always just seemed to be in the right spot, so everything worked out.”

Barnett was the offensive star of the game. Although he hit just two of his seven 3-point attempts, the two 3s he did make were two of the biggest shots of the game. One of them, which he drained at the 15:03 mark in the second half, capped a 8-0 Missouri run over 50 seconds that pushed the team’s lead up to 9 after Kentucky had cut Missouri’s halftime advantage of 10 down to just 1. Twelve of Barnett’s 16 points came in the second half.

Martin said his senior leader’s even-keeled attitude has been the key to his success in big moments.

“He has a style about him out there on the floor,” Martin said. “I give him credit; he’s flying a jet from here to Asia. He’s cruisin’. Turbulence, it doesn’t matter what happens, he’s just cruising the whole time. That’s a skill because he’s [always] locked in on the next thing.”

While Missouri has struggled to close out big games for much of the season, Saturday’s game was an exception. The team hit 14 of its last 16 free throws over the final 5:17 of play and limited its turnovers in that stretch to five despite going the last 6:37 without a field goal.

Robertson said Missouri struggled a little with Kentucky’s press at the end of the game but made its free throws and protected the ball when it mattered.

“It was a little bit rough when they started pressing; we had a few turnovers, but after we got settled we started breaking it pretty easily and getting to the free-throw line,” Robertson said. “Our guys weren’t scared or nothing. We went to the line confident and we knocked down shots.”

Next up for Missouri is a trip to Oxford, Mississippi, to take on the Ole Miss Rebels Tuesday night. For now, though, the team will enjoy a victory that many didn’t think was possible just one week ago.

“It’s a great win for our program, the university [and] the state of Missouri,” Martin said. “I’m happy for our guys; they’ve put the work in.”

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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