The Tigers held Kentucky freshman standout Knox to just five points in the historic 69-60 win
Before Saturday afternoon, Missouri had tried and failed 10 times to beat Kentucky in a game of basketball.
The Wildcats, boasting a storied history and legacy of dominance, had beaten the Tigers every time the two had squared off. There was an overtime thriller, a few one-sided drubbings. Missouri, though, had never come out on top.
Saturday, before a black-and-gold-striped Mizzou Arena, MU snapped the streak and finished off the No. 21 Wildcats 69-60.
Missouri outshot Kentucky, it limited the Wildcats to their lowest scoring total since 2014 and the Tigers shut down star freshman and leading scorer Kevin Knox, a former Missouri target who finished the game with five points and a pair of turnovers.
The Tigers did it all with just eight healthy scholarship players.
“And with CBS and Bill Raftery calling the game,” junior Kevin Puryear said. “That’s pretty cool.”
The Tigers (15-8, 5-5 Southeastern Conference) not only knocked off the Wildcats for the first time in program history, but they also bolstered their hopes for an NCAA Tournament bid with a second signature win over a ranked opponent.
The prospect of tournament play seemed far-fetched before Missouri’s game at Alabama, where the Tigers snapped a three-game skid by outrebounding and outshooting the Crimson Tide.
That momentous win was followed Saturday by an even bigger one, over a 21st-ranked Kentucky team that boasted the country’s second-best recruiting class in 2017. The Wildcats (17-6, 6-4) were longer, taller and more athletic than the Tigers, but stalwart defense and a pair of runs led to an important win for both the season and the program as a whole.
Martin called it a “great win for our program, our university and the state of Missouri.”
Kassius Robertson, who lost to the Wildcats a year ago with Canisius, said it felt like revenge for his “guys back in Buffalo.”
And from Jordan Barnett: “It’s definitely a really good win. That’s how I look at it, though, a good win. … I’m not treating this one any different because of the name on the jersey.”
It was a tense affair from the start. Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon got into foul trouble early — a trend this season — but Porter hit a 3-pointer that capped a 10-0 run and later convert on a midrange jump shot. He finished the game with 13 points and eight rebounds.
Defense, however, was the difference-maker. Missouri limited Kentucky to just 18 points in the first half, the Wildcats’ lowest single-half total since 2008. Kentucky responded by scoring 10 points in the first three minutes of the second period.
Martin noted a pair of “uncharacteristic turnovers” to start the half — one from Puryear when he hesitated on a jump shot, and the other from guard Cullen VanLeer, who’s seen his role grow since the suspension of point guard Terrence Phillips.
A back-and-forth battle ensued. After Porter knocked down a 3-pointer early in the half, he picked up a loose ball and brought it the length of the court for a layup. Seconds later, Barnett nailed a 3-pointer of his own, capping an 8-0 run in just 56 seconds.
“All of a sudden, you look up, and (the deficit) is nine,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “Like, what just happened?”
The Tigers wouldn’t let up. By the nine-minute mark, Missouri led by 14 points, thanks in part to strong offensive rebounding from Puryear and a streak of converted 3-pointers from Barnett and Robertson.
As the Wildcats battled back amid the Tigers’ turnover struggles, though, the mood grew tense.
The lead fell from 14 to 12. Then 10. Nine. Eight.
Porter craned his neck toward the scoreboard. One minute, 54 seconds were left in the game.
Missouri wouldn’t make the final two minutes easy. Robertson committed an untimely turnover, bringing the game total to 20. Porter missed a free throw. Kentucky made its shots.
“It was a little bit rough to start, when they started pressing,” Robertson said of the Tigers’ struggles to inbound the ball. “We had a few turnovers — just miscommunication.”
Porter, though, would make the final big play of the afternoon, blocking a Jarred Vanderbilt shot and grabbing the rebound to preserve a seven-point lead. A foul followed, and the freshman walked the length of the court smiling and nodding his head.
He had tweeted in May that the Kentucky game was “about to be crazy.”
He wasn’t wrong. The Missouri student section was packed a half-hour before tipoff, and Martin called the atmosphere one of the best in which he’s ever coached.
The students also homed their sights on one player in particular: Kevin Knox. The freshman visited Missouri in March with Michael Porter Jr. and Blake Harris and was shortly considering joining Martin’s revamped Tigers program.
He ended up at Kentucky. Missouri fans didn’t let him off the hook.
A chorus of boos met Knox with every touch of the basketball. Asked how Missouri prepared to guard him, Martin smiled wide.
“We wanted to make him work,” he said, before grinning through the next question.
Puryear was offered a similar query, though it involved the student section. What did he make of their response to Knox?
The junior smiled.
“I think it’s best I don’t answer that question.”