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February 24, 2013

Cats show grit in battling past Missouri at Rupp

There were spectacular plays by both teams, the kind of standout, shout-out-loud plays that make highlight reels and lasting memories.

But the one John Calipari wanted to talk about first after his Kentucky team battled past Missouri 90-83 in a Rupp Arena overtime thriller late Saturday night was of the quiet variety.

"There was a play where Ryan (Harrow) let a guy turn down a pick-and-roll and I said, Ryan!'" Calipari said. "Julius (Mays) looks at me (raises his hand and says), 'I got it.'"

Mays would coach his own teammate. Calipari could quiet down. It's the sort of thing the coach has been looking for from these Wildcats (19-8, 10-4 Southeastern Conference) all season.

"They're starting to be empowered, and if they're empowered they're going to be better," Calipari said. "That's what you're starting to see."

It wasn't all Calipari saw that he liked in an empowering - and power-packed - performance.

Trailing by 13 points in the first half, Kentucky fought back to take a seven-point second-half lead, then made 11-of-14 free throws in overtime to hold off Missouri (19-8, 8-6) for a critical win.

"We fought hard," said guard Archie Goodwin, who had 18 points despite a scoreless first half. "That's what it ultimately came down to. We made a lot of mistakes, but at the end, we just wanted it more than they did."

The Cats got 24 points, six rebounds and three assists from Mays, who played 44 of the game's 45 minutes. They got 21 points and seven rebounds from Alex Poythress and 16 points, eight rebounds and six assists from Harrow. Willie Cauley-Stein had seven points, 12 rebounds and seven blocked shots.

"We played incredible," Poythress said. "I wish we played like that every single game."

They don't, but something was different Saturday.

The team that so often hangs its head when things go wrong stayed positive. When Mizzou raced out to a fast start, when it fought back to force overtime, Kentucky kept calm and carried on.

"What I told them after, what I've been trying to tell them all year, 'Guys, if you miss a shot or turn it over or break down defensively, forget about it and just keep battling,'" Calipari said. "They did a lot of that today."

In doing so, Calipari said, Kentucky showed "a collective will to win."

It was sparked, at least in part, by the rowdiest crowd Rupp Arena has seen this season. A packed house of 24,380 stayed in the game even as Missouri controlled the early stages of the first half, and buoyed UK to a surges late in the first half and early in the second.

"It's not a better crowd than the one that we had tonight," Goodwin said. "I don't know if it's just because it was College GameDay or what it was, but if we could get the crowd like that every night, it's going to be pretty hard to beat us."

The electricity in the building sparked something in the Cats.

Outrebounded 27-18 in the first half, Kentucky finished the game having won the rebounding battle 41-39. UK shot 65.4 percent in the second half, got some key stops late in regulation and survived huge games from Missouri's Phil Pressey (27 points, 10 assists, four steals) and Alex Oriakhi (16 points, 15 rebounds).

But as much as anything, UK showed grit it's often lacked this season.

"They were the aggressive team and I think again, in the second half, they got to every loose ball, every 50-50 ball," Missouri coach Frank Haith said, "and that was the difference in the game with how they came out with great toughness in the second half."

Still, both teams had a chance to win in regulation.

Pressey missed a driving left-handed shot with about three seconds to play, and Mays launched from near midcourt well before the buzzer, misfiring and missing a streaking Goodwin.

"We got the win either way, so it doesn't matter," Goodwin said.

And that win was crucial. Kentucky still sits on the NCAA Tournament bubble, but the Cats' position isn't nearly as precarious as it looked after last Saturday's 88-58 loss at Tennessee.

"It's another stepping stone for us," Mays said. "It obviously doesn't make or break our whole season. We're just taking it one game at a time, not looking ahead or looking past anyone. We're just living in the moment, enjoying the moment."

There was plenty to enjoy on Saturday, and some growth Calipari's been waiting a long time to celebrate.

"We had some bad turnovers late in regulation, bad turnovers, but we just kept playing," Calipari said. "Two weeks ago those turnovers would have led us to let go of the rope, and we didn't today."


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