Kentucky has been looking for a shot of confidence.
It’s not that the No. 24 Cats are “weaklings and don’t believe in themselves,” Coach Matthew Mitchell explained.
It’s that they get discouraged too easily when things go wrong.
“It’s a product of wanting to do well,” he said. “It’s not a product of not believing. … We’re going to need to bounce back a little bit quicker than what we do right now.”
Kentucky learned a lot about the power of “bouncing back” on Thursday night against Missouri, coming back from a double-digit deficit and then nearly surrendering a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter before prevailing 64-62 at Memorial Coliseum.
Kentucky snapped a two-game losing streak after tough road games at Duke and Tennessee in the past week.
“We all want to do so well that when we do one thing wrong, we feel like the world’s crashing down,” said UK senior Makayla Epps, who had 17 points and five assists.
It looked that way in the fourth quarter when Kentucky saw all but two points of its 16-point advantage fade away.
“That was fun,” Missouri Coach Robin Pingeton said of the late run that got the Tigers within a basket in the final seconds. “Proud of our girls for that.”
But, as Pingeton pointed out, the game was won and lost in the second quarter.
“We had a chance down the stretch, but that second quarter really killed us,” she said of the avalanche that gave UK a 34-21 lead at the half. The Cats had trailed by as many as 10 points in the first quarter.
In front of a sparse crowd willing to brave the snow, UK opened the game more frozen than the temperature outside, missing eight of its first nine shots and hitting just three field goals in the first quarter.
Then Kentucky went on a 29-6 run to end the half, hitting seven three-pointers and scoring 17 unanswered points during the spree. After shooting 21.4 percent in the first quarter, Kentucky hit 64.3 percent in the second, including 75 percent from long range.
Kentucky hit nine three-pointers in the game, their second most of the season.
“One went in and it really seemed like it got the lid off of it there,” Mitchell said of the shots from long range. “That was a blitz there in the second quarter.”
The run started with a three from Epps to end the first quarter, followed by a three-pointer from freshman walk-on Paige Poffenberger.
“It probably gave her a lift,” Mitchell said of Epps’ three-pointer. “We needed her to play better than how she’d been playing. She sure did tonight. She got back to doing some things that make her a special player.”
The Tigers (11-5, 1-1 Southeastern Conference) managed to make just one field goal during an 18-minute stretch of the second half, which helped Kentucky take the lead into the half.
Sierra Michaelis scored 10 of her game-high 22 points in the third quarter to help Missouri get out of its rut and pull within 51-40 after three quarters.
It helped spark a late Tigers run that got them within three points with 10 seconds to play on a layup by Sophie Cunningham. Another basket by Cunningham at the horn was as close as they could get. The sophomore finished with 16 points and five rebounds.
As the Tigers edged closer, UK’s players just kept reminding each other that there were timeouts available and to hold on to the ball.
Evelyn Akhator had 14 points and eight rebounds for Kentucky, including 11 points in the second half. Maci Morris pitched in 11 points.
All eight players who saw minutes for Kentucky scored, including Taylor Murray, who had seven points, three rebounds and two assists.
“We’re struggling right now mentally,” Epps said. “We’re pretty sharp off the court with academics, but we’ve got to sharpen up a little more on the court.”
The fourth-quarter mishaps will be a good teaching tool for Kentucky, said Mitchell, noting UK (10-5, 1-1) doesn’t have a lot of players who have been in those situations before.
“I just kept trying to tell them the clock’s on your side if we can just make some plays,” he said. “They did a beautiful job of making it too difficult for Missouri to come back. So as hard as they fought, it was just too big of a margin.”
The Cats were again without a key bench player in Jessica Hardin, who missed her second straight game while working through the concussion protocol. There was no word on her return.
“She’s struggling right now,” Mitchell said. “It’s day to day. She was not feeling well today, not well enough to attend the game, but we’ll do everything we can to get her back.”
In her place, Kentucky got important minutes from freshmen Jaida Roper (five points, three rebounds, two assists) and Poffenberger (three points).
Texas A&M at No. 24 Kentucky
2 p.m. Sunday (SEC Network)