LEXINGTON, Ky. — Keion Brooks Jr. denied Sean Durugordon with a huge block with two minutes left in the first half. Then, as the half ended, he threw down a monstrous dunk to cap a massive run en route to No. 18 Kentucky’s 83-56 win over Missouri.
He threw down another one-handed slam with 9:16 left in the game, much to the delight of the crowd at Rupp Arena. It was his game, and Missouri had no answer for him.
Brooks finished with a game-high 17 points and chipped in with nine rebounds and one assist in the Southeastern Conference opener for each team. He was named player of the game on the big screen during a Missouri timeout.
“They just did a great job of pushing the ball all the way down our throat,” said Missouri stand-in coach Cornell Mann, who filled in for Cuonzo Martin after he tested positive for COVID-19. “I think our guys were busting to get back, build the wall and cover it the way we should.”
Brooks wasn’t the only one who caused Missouri problems. Oscar Tshiebwe finished with 20 rebounds and 13 points, which included the dagger with a massive two-handed slam after grabbing a rebound with 4:03 left.
“I thought ... sometimes (Tshiebwe) was a bit over-physical, both on the glass and offensively,” Mann said. “But, hey, that’s the game.”
TyTy Washington finished with 14 points. Sahvir Wheeler, who went down holding his knee at half court as the first half ended but continued, finished with 11 points and nine assists for the Wildcats (10-2).
For a moment, however brief it may have been, it appeared the Tigers might be suited for an upset. Missouri had Kentucky on the ropes, going on a 12-0 run to take an 18-17 lead midway through the first half.
But, as has so often been the case over the years, a John Calipari timeout changed the game.
The Wildcats ended the first half with a 27-9 run to snuff out any chance of an embarrassing loss. Kobe Brown and Amari Davis both had foul trouble down the stretch for the Tigers, which contributed to UK’s run.
“It all happened pretty much around the same time,” Mann said. “To me, that’s what happened. Not necessarily anything they did in terms of an adjustment, but more we had to make the adjustment.”
With the loss, Missouri (6-7) has fallen below the .500 mark for the first time this season.
It was another game of ups and downs for the Tigers. They had 12-0 and 9-0 runs at different points of the contest but were subsequently undone by long scoreless stretches, mindless mistakes and Kentucky runs.
Largely, it came down to Missouri making the same mistakes as previous games.
Again, Brown had to sit with early foul trouble. Again, the Tigers had too many turnovers. Again, Missouri didn’t get to the free-throw line enough.
“It hurts the team as a whole — Kobe being out,” Missouri guard Jarron Coleman said. “It is what it is ... . Foul trouble is gonna happen, so we’ve gotta be able to carry our weight in the team.”
By the end of the first half, Missouri had three players — Brown, Davis and Jordan Wilmore — in foul trouble with two each. Gordon fouled out, while Brown finished with four. Wilmore did not see the floor after his second foul.
Missouri had 23 fouls to Kentucky’s 13.
“It’s probably two more, three, ready to come behind that,” Mann said of the decision to sit Wilmore. “I think it was smart to keep him out of the game. Obviously, you see how lopsided the fouls were, so we really didn’t need any more of that.”
The Tigers, as they have so often this season, seemed unable to keep possession for large periods of the game. Missouri finished with 14 turnovers compared to Kentucky’s 11.
“We weren’t doing a good job getting back in transition,” Coleman said. “I had a couple turnovers back to back, so both of them combined, that’s a bad recipe for us.”
Then there were the free throws. The Tigers weren’t bad statistically from the line, shooting 70%. The problem was that they only had 10 shots, nine of which came in the second half, compared to the Wildcats’ 26.
“It’s just really, really hard,” Mann said of the lack of free throws. “When you look at it, you can cry about it or whatever, but it happened. Yes, it’s really hard, and really there’s nothing you can do about that part.”
All of that comes without even looking at Missouri’s dire 32.8% field goal percentage.
The Tigers need to find form fast if they are to make any sort of postseason play. With Mississippi State, No. 19 Alabama and Arkansas on the horizon, the stretch won’t get much easier.
While the SEC is viewed as being top-heavy, that weight may be too much for Missouri at the bottom, which is where it’s headed without significant improvements.
“Continue to scratch, claw and fight,” Mann said. “What we’re doing is gaining experience, and experience will pay off.”