Julius Randle finished with 18 points, nine boards, three assists and three steals and Kentucky’s three perimeter players — the Harrison twins and James Young — combined for 55 points, seven assists and just three turnovers as No. 11 Kentucky picked up a huge win on Saturday, knocking off Missouri on the road, 84-79.
The first half was precisely the kind of performance that Kentucky fans wanted to see out of the Wildcats. They played hard, they played together, they defended, they made the extra pass, they pounded the ball into Randle. When Dominique Hawkins hit the floor in the first half, the entire team sprinted over to help him up.
Tuesday’s loss at LSU looked like Kentucky was going through a walk-through at a shootaround. Saturday’s performance brought a completely different level of energy. And that, in the end, may be the key to Kentucky’s season.
There is simply no questioning the talent level on this roster, even if you are in the camp that believes that Aaron and Andrew Harrison are overrated and even if Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress continue to put together an up-and-down career. On paper, the Wildcats can compete with anyone in the country. On the court, that’s not necessarily the case, and the cause often boils down to effort and intensity.
This Kentucky team, at times, can has a distinct lack of toughness, both mentally and physically. That wasn’t the case on Saturday.
I’ll give you an example: at one point in the second half, the Wildcats were up 49-33. But Jabari Brown and Jordan Clark both got into a rhythm in the second half, routinely dissecting the Kentucky defense off the dribble. Brown finished with 33 points. Clarkson had 28. They put on a show, one that will once again raise serious question marks about Kentucky’s perimeter defense.
With two minutes left, Brown hit a 26-foot three and drew a foul on a questionable call. The ensuing free throw cut the Kentucky lead to 78-75. The Wildcats were on the verge of an epic collapse in a incredibly important game on the road. For a team that has yet to prove capable of thriving in situations like that, this was concerning.
But Kentucky executed in the final three possession, getting a bucket each time they had the ball, and much of the credit should be given to Andrew Harrison. He made the plays that a point guard is supposed to make, finishing with 14 points, four assists and just a single turnover. He made the right decisions and got the ball to the right people.
Kentucky played as well as they can play for the first 25 minutes on Saturday. They survived blowing a lead against a good team on the road.
No matter how you slice it, this was a promising performance from Kentucky.