One comeback was tough. Another rally was even tougher, but a third straight comeback proved to be impossible for Kentucky, which had a three-game winning streak snapped in a 69-60 loss at Missouri Saturday.
The Wildcats (17-6, 6-4 Southeastern Conference) used two big second-half comebacks to defeat West Virginia and Vanderbilt during the past week, but couldn’t overcome poor shooting performance, especially in the first half against the Tigers.
Kentucky shot a season-low 31 percent from the floor and made just two 3-pointers on 20 attempts, missing its first 13 shots from long range until Wenyen Gabriel connected on a trey with 2:51 remaining. The Wildcats shot 20 percent in the first half and missed 13 straight shots during a 10-0 Missouri run that enabled the hosts to build a 16-9 lead.
Kentucky coach John Calipari wasn’t surprised by his team’s dismal performance.
“I keep telling these guys, I don’t think any of them are playing great,” Calipari said. “They’re not playing bad, bad. They’ve had some bad games, but I’m just waiting for them to break through it. Most of it is play this way. Guys are fighting that. ‘I’m going to play my way’ which means I’m not passing, which means none of us pass, which means no easy shots. And you’re in a dogfight, which we’ve been in 15 times this year.”
Kentucky, which lost to the Tigers for the first time in 11 tries, tallied just 18 points in the first half, the lowest in John Calipari’s nine seasons with the Wildcats. Despite a 28-18 deficit at the half, the Wildcats pulled within 33-32 but the hosts scored eight in a row to extend a lead that stretched to 14 points with nine minutes remaining. Kentucky’s final tally was a season low for the Wildcats.
“Some games they just don't fall,” Kentucky freshman Jarred Vanderbilt said. “You gotta find another way to continue to get baskets. Like I said, today they just weren't falling."
In addition to the shooting woes, Kentucky had internal issues to battle.
“I’m challenged when guys aren’t listening in timeouts,” Calipari said. “That’s a hard one. You call them over … “What didn’t you hear?” ‘Well, I wasn’t listening.” We’ve got some of that/ I enjoy winning, bringing teams together and seeing guys get better. Sometimes you’ve gotta be hard on them. Tell them ‘your will is not stronger than mine.’ We’re kind of in that with this group.”
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander led Kentucky with 15 points and six assists, the eighth time this season the Kentucky guard has dished out six or more assists. Vanderbilt just missed a double-double with eight points and 10 rebounds in eight minutes.
Kentucky leading scorer Kevin Knox finished with just five points, his first single-digit outing in three games. A week ago, Knox scored a career-high 34 points in an 83-76 win at West Virginia in the SEC-Big 12 Challenge. Vanderbilt said the Missouri crowd had nothing to do with Knox’s performance.
“He's human,” he said. “It happens. You have good games (and) you have bad games. This happened to be one of them."
Kassius Robertson and Jordan Barnett led the Tigers (15-8, 5-5) with 16 points each, while Jontay Porter followed with 13. Missouri connected on seven shots from long range, with Robertson, Barnett and Porter making two each.
Despite the loss, Calipari is confident his team can turn the proverbial corner.
“I still believe in this team and I still think we have the most upside of any team in the country,” Calipari said. “It’s just that unless you play together as a team, unless you create shots for each other, unless you cover for each other defensively, unless you talk more, you can’t ever become a good team.”
Gametracker: Tennessee at Kentucky, 7 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM WBUL, Lexington.
Keith Taylor is sports editor for Kentucky Today. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter @keithtaylor21.