Kentucky’s season of living dangerously continued at Missouri on Saturday.
For a third straight game, the Cats fell behind by a double-digit margin in the second half.
Unlike at West Virginia last weekend and against Vanderbilt four days ago, resilience and desire were not enough.
Too many missed shots and too few heady passes killed the Cats as Missouri won 69-60. It was the Tigers’ first victory in a series that had seen Kentucky win the previous 10 meetings by an average of 18.3 points.
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Coach John Calipari captured what the essence of the problem he perceives with one statistic: UK’s point guards took 27 shots. That they made only seven didn’t help. But Calipari suggested that the absence of the classic pass-first mentality for point guards contributed to a continuing go-for-your-own approach. Coincidentally, Kentucky had a single-digit assist total (nine) for the second straight game.
“The biggest thing is we still refuse to pass the ball,” Calipari said. “And I don’t have an answer for that.”
Of course, it’s not for lack of trying. A couple of weeks ago, Calipari tried to foster more passing by announcing that he would count any pass as an assist. He would celebrate passes and shrug at baskets. “It’s obviously not working,” Calipari said.
When asked if he could use his vast backlog of coaching success or numerous coaching contacts to find a means of inspiring more passing, Calipari said, “I’ve done this a long time. But I haven’t had a team this young.”
As for the infrequent baskets, UK’s streak of making three-pointers nearly ended at 1,035 games. The Cats missed their first 13 shots from beyond the arc. Wenyen Gabriel kept the streak alive with a three-pointer from the top of the key with 2:51 left. It reduced UK’s deficit to 58-50. But overall, Kentucky made only two of 20 three-point shots.
Kentucky trailed for more than 30 minutes, and did not lead after the 17:39 mark of the first half.
UK’s leading scorers struggled. Kevin Knox, who was booed every time he touched the ball, made only two of six shots and finished with five points, his second-lowest total of the season.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander made only five of 16 shots en route to a hard-earned 15 points. He had six of UK’s nine assists, but had the opportunity for still more, Calipari said.
Missouri, which improved its home record to 10-2, improved to 15-8 overall and 5-5 in the Southeastern Conference.
Kentucky fell to 17-6 overall and 6-4 in the SEC.
Missouri was coming off a 69-60 victory at Alabama that bolstered its confidence.
Kentucky’s uphill climb reached its steepest when Missouri took a 52-38 lead with 9:09 left. UK again showed it had heart. The Cats got as close at 65-60 with 41.8 seconds left.
But Missouri sealed the victory by making 13 of 14 free throws in the final 3:03. Missouri Coach Counzo Martin credited confidence and getting the right players to the line.
Kassius Robertson, an 83-percent free-throw shooter, made eight of eight in that span and finished with 16 points.
Calipari lamented his players’ failure to execute properly down the stretch.
“Late in timeouts, ‘We’re not fouling here,’ ‘We’re fouling here,’” Calipari said of his instructions. “We did the opposite. Literally did the opposite.”
The UK coach took some solace in some players chastising teammates for not following direction.
“I’m challenged when guys aren’t listening in timeouts,” Calipari said. “That’s a hard one.”
Kentucky’s addiction to early deficits continued. This time UK put a historical twist on the theme. The Cats trailed 28-18 at halftime. That marked UK’s lowest-scoring first half since Nov. 29, 2008. On that day in Las Vegas, Billy Gillispie’s Cats trailed West Virginia 26-16.
That team went on to beat West Virginia 54-43.
For Kentucky to beat Missouri — and repeat the come-from-behind formula that netted victories over West Virginia and Vanderbilt — better shooting seemed a must.
Kentucky made only six of 30 shots in the first half. That included zero of 10 from three-point range. Fortunately for UK, Missouri did not shoot much better. The Tigers made only nine of 23 shots (two of 12 from three-point range).
With help from Missouri, Kentucky rallied early in the second half. Kevin Puryear, a 27.8-percent three-point shooter, missed from beyond the arc early in the shot clock to start the half. That shot and turnovers on the next two possessions helped UK close to within 33-32.
In that span, Gilgeous-Alexander shot two technical free throws as the result of a Geist elbow that caught him flush in the face.
But Missouri’s three-point shooting stalled UK’s rally. Jontay Porter, the brother of injured star Michael Porter Jr., hit a three-pointer to start an 8-0 counter run.
Kentucky competed, and got within 65-60 with 41.8 seconds left. But Missouri free throws kept the Cats at bay.
“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 great team.”
Tennessee at Kentucky
7 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)