By LARRY VAUGHT
On a night where Kentucky honored its 1978 national championship team, coach John Calipari’s team played like a team with championship aspirations of its own.
The Wildcats took control of the game late in the first half and easily avenged an earlier loss by thumping Missouri 87-66. To make it even better for UK fans, Brad Calipari hit a 3-pointer to end the scoring and give UK its biggest margin of victory in a SEC game this year.
“Right before your eyes we are becoming a better basketball team,” Calipari said. “I am not fighting anybody. It took us a while to figure out the team. We are an athletic team. We can play different ways.”
Coming off a win at Arkansas when it fell behind by 11-0 and then won by 15 points, this win certainly continued to send the message that Kentucky is not dead yet like it appeared during a four-game losing streak. Remember then that Calipari said his team just needed to win one game to get back on track, and now UK has won three straight and played perhaps its best back-to-back games of the year.
Kentucky got 23 points on 12 Missouri turnovers and outscored Missouri 10-0 in fast break points.
Kentucky had six players in double figures — and Jarred Vanderbilt had his first double-double with 11 points and 15 rebounds in 27 minutes. He’s been a beast on the glass during UK’s win streak and was again in this lopsided win. He has 33 rebounds in the last three games. He’s averaging 11 points and 11 rebounds per game during UK’s three-game win streak.
Kevin Knox, who had his named linked to a FBI probe of college basketball Friday, played like a player who no worries — and UK obviously had no worries about playing him. Despite getting in early foul trouble, he led Kentucky with 21 points, including a perfect 8-for-8 at the foul line.
“I think he was great all week,” Calipari said. “He was patient in the second half when he didn’t play much the first half. It’s amazing in the last three weeks how much he has learned. He needs it badly.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander was superb with 14 points, eight assists, five rebounds, one steal and just one turnover in 35 minutes. Quade Green was just as good with 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting, two assists, two rebounds, one steal and just two turnovers in 27 minutes.
“We have guards that are talking and playing,” Calipari said.
Hamidou Diallo has struggled in recent game but he had 11 points and more impressively was 3-for-3 from 3-point range. He did not have a turnover in 25 minutes.
“I gave Hami a hug and the team gave him a standing ovation. I wasn’t going to kick him to the curb,’ Calipari said. “I love that our fans gave Hami a standing ovation. You should see the smile on his face. The players love it. They know he was struggling.”
Then throw in 12 points, five rebounds and two assists from P.J. Washington and it was a total team domination victory by Kentucky, which opened the game 6-for-8 from 3-point range and finished 10-for-16. The eight first-half 3’s were a season high for any half.
“They are a talented team. It was more than shooting. With Vanderbilt and P.J., two young guys that rebound and keep balls alive. That was the biggest key. Their movement and relentless effort. I thought both those guys played great games,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin.
“They were at home. Most teams play at home with more energy. When you make shots, it also looks differently and they just played well as a team. From a toughness standpoint, they set the tone and we could never match the toughness level.”
Calipari said Missouri is one of the top 25 defensive teams in the country but his team passed and executed better and shot much better.
“We just made shots,” Calipari said. “In March you got to be able to score. I kept telling these guys you had to get 75 or 80 on the board against a good team. We are starting to play and figure it out. I am proud of them.
“We are scrambling now. All of a sudden there are effort plays we are making. We can risk more and the more you can risk, the better you are going to be. This team is beginning to know we have to do this together.”
That showed when Kentucky ended the first half with some dynamic plays to break the game open.
First it was a half-court pass from Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to P.J. Washington for a dunk. Next came a Quade Green fast break basket where he never slowed down. Then the best of the best was a steal by Hami Diallo and a dunk that took out six weeks worth of frustration on the rim followed by a 3-pointer with 12 seconds left to boost UK to a 44-32 halftime lead — and Kentucky didn’t let up the second half.
* * *
The win keeps Kentucky (20-9) tied for third place in the SEC with a 9-7 record. Arkansas won at Alabama Saturday to improve to 9-7 while Mississippi State is also 9-7. Florida upset SEC leader Auburn in Gainesville to go 9-7 also.
The top four teams in the SEC get a double bye into the quarterfinals. With wins over Arkansas and Mississippi State, UK would have the tiebreaker edge over both teams. Florida currently would have an edge over UK because of its win in Rupp Arena but the teams play March 3 in Gainesville to end regular-season play.