For Missouri, Saturday was about as fun as college basketball gets this side of March. In front of a full, loud and Tiger-striped Mizzou Arena, Missouri won 69-60 against Kentucky to cap a huge week for the team.
The Tigers (15-8, 5-5 in SEC play through Sunday) churned out a first-half lead with strong defense, and then kept just ahead of the Wildcats (17-6, 6-4 in SEC) the entire second half, earning Missouri’s first win in 11 tries against the behemoth Kentucky program.
Kentucky did trim the game to 33-32 early in the second half, but Missouri responded with a lightning-quick 8-0 run that put a jolt into an already lively crowd. By the time the clock finally hit zero, the team and the arena celebrated. The hopes of a fine season and an NCAA Tournament berth were back on.
After a three-game losing streak, the Tigers picked up a huge win at Alabama on Wednesday, and then the victory over Kentucky Saturday. That’s a pretty outstanding week for building the Tigers’ case for inclusion in the Big Dance.
After plenty of struggles at the point guard position this year, including losing some of them, the Tigers shook things up last week, starting shooting guard Kassius Robertson at the point. That puts an extra burden on one of the Tigers best scorers, but Robertson is a smooth player who seems capable at the point. Former starting point guard Jordan Geist has give the Tigers good minutes off the bench, especially against Alabama.
It was truly a team effort against Kentucky. Robertson and Barnett, the offense’s usual suspects, each scored 16. Jontay Porter had 13 points and 8 rebounds off the bench. Kevin Puryear was the early spark to get things going. Jeremiah Tilmon and Reed Nikko also battled hard inside against Kentucky’s tall and talented forwards.
The defense shone. In an impressive development, Cullen VanLeer helped keep Kentucky’s future NBA player Kevin Knox from doing much on offense. There were still ominous signs, as Missouri’s 20 turnovers come to mind, but it was a feel-good win.
The schedule seems to get a little easier for a stretch now, and Missouri needs to pour it on. But if this bizarre SEC season, where Auburn is coming out of nowhere to probably win the league title and seemingly any team can beat any other team on a given night, it’s tough to read too much into the twists and turns of the 18-game SEC schedule.
But in any event, the opportunities are there. On Saturday Missouri hosts Mississippi State (1 p.m. on ESPN2). The Tigers lost a thoroughly maddening game at Mississippi State on Jan. 27.
Missouri is playing better now, but the Bulldogs (17-6, 5-5 in SEC) have won three straight heading into this week. Ben Howland can coach, and Missouri has a fresh memory that Quinndary Weatherspoon can ball.
At home, Missouri should win this one, but in this season’s wild SEC, most games are up for grabs.