The 2020-21 Kentucky men’s basketball team hasn’t lived up to the standard the Wildcats have set over the past decade.
“This isn’t like my past teams,” coach John Calipari said.
Yet, even in a down year for Kentucky a win over the Wildcats means something.
“A lot goes with beating a program like that when you’re trying to become that (program),” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said.
The Tigers did exactly that Wednesday, defeating the Wildcats 75-70. Though Missouri never trailed, Kentucky put together a strong performance, outplaying the Tigers for a long stretch of time in the second half.
Missouri started strong, jumping out to a 13-point lead going into halftime. Most of the Tigers’ first-half points came from 3-point range, with Missouri scoring 21 of its 40 points from beyond the arc.
The Tigers kept the Wildcats out of the paint, forcing them to settle for 3s. This is something Kentucky has struggled with all season, as it ranks 299th in the nation in 3-point percentage (30.2).
The Wildcats looked like they were heading for another dreadful shooting night, but the script flipped in the second half. Kentucky started hitting from beyond the arc, making six 3-pointers, and the Wildcats finished with nine 3s, two shy of tying their highest total this season.
With Missouri blowing second-half leads against Mississippi State and Auburn in January, the quick 10-1 run by Kentucky started to resemble another Tigers meltdown. Instead, Missouri showed resiliency and relied on its senior point guard, Dru Smith.
Smith racked up a season-high 26 points Wednesday, with 16 coming in the second half. He also pulled down a season-high seven rebounds. Smith lived at the free-throw line, getting there a season-high 14 times and converting on 12.
“He was assertive,” Martin said. “We need him to be aggressive, it just happened to be 26 (points) tonight.”
Smith has been red-hot shooting the ball since the beginning of the year. In his past eight games, Smith is shooting 48.2% from the field and 45.5% from the 3-point line, reaching double figures in seven of those games.
“We rely on him every night,” guard Mark Smith said. “It’s fun watching him.”
Missouri shot 42.9% from beyond the arc, which is the Tigers’ second-best this season. Missouri’s best 3-point outing came last week against TCU, when the Tigers shot 47.8%.
Sharpshooter Mark Smith had a hand in the 3-point success, going 3 of 5 from beyond the arc. Smith — who came off the bench for the second straight game after struggling in conference play — hit two key shots down the stretch to stave off a Kentucky comeback.
“I don’t think it changes that much at all,” Mark Smith said. “When I’m open, I shoot it and try to knock my shots down. That’s about it.”
If anything, the lineup change has awakened Mark Smith’s shooting. In his past two games, he is shooting 44.4% from 3-point range. He shot just 21.4% in the previous nine games before moving to the bench.
“You’re talking about a guy that’s a starter coming off the bench,” Martin said. “I’m not surprised by Mark.”
Missouri’s win over Kentucky was just its second in school history, ending a three-game losing streak against the Wildcats. Wednesday was the eighth time a Missouri game finished within single digits, being 7-1 in those games.
“We’ve experienced it enough,” Martin said.
“I think we’ve been pretty poised down the stretch of most games,” Dru Smith said. “Hopefully, we can continue that.”