One key trait had helped Kentucky win five straight games going into the meeting at Missouri on Monday night: toughness.
And for the first time in a long time, the No. 25 Cats were out-toughed by Missouri, which gutted out a 73-67 win at Mizzou Arena.
“We don’t ever want to be outhustled at Kentucky,” said Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell, whose team suffered its first loss to the Tigers since they joined the Southeastern Conference.
“It doesn’t happen a lot, but it happened tonight, so when that happens, you’ve got to go back and be honest with everybody and show some teaching clips so we can get better.”
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Many of those clips will be from when UK was on defense in the second half as the Tigers stopped settling for jumpers and drove it to the basket over and over again, hitting 52.3 percent of their shots in the fourth quarter.
They also hit 83.3 percent of their free throws, making 20 of the 24 they attempted. Cierra Porter was responsible for knocking down all 11 she attempted to score 17 points and grab seven rebounds.
Mitchell was not at all pleased with UK’s defense.
“We are only a formidable team if we’re down in the stance, moving our feet, hustling and playing together and we just stood up way too much tonight, and Missouri really, really attacked us,” he said.
“Just one of those nights. We didn’t have it, didn’t have a good enough effort to beat them. They beat us. Give them credit.”
Missouri, which won its fifth straight game and improved to 12-1 at home, had learned a lot from several close losses this season, including a 64-62 defeat in Lexington on Jan. 5.
“We’ve grown through some of those games we’ve had this season and the poise you see us playing with at the end-of-game situations now is different than it was earlier in the year,” said Coach Robin Pingeton, who had four players finish in double digits led by Sierra Michaelis’ 19 points.
“We talked about that a lot, that we didn’t want those losses to be empty. We wanted to learn from them.”
What the Tigers, who went ahead for good late in the fourth quarter and held off any late UK run attempts, learned was that they couldn’t have a letdown quarter like they had in Lexington.
At Memorial Coliseum a couple of weeks before, they’d had a bad second quarter that gave UK all the momentum. The Tigers wanted to avoid that this time.
“We just talked about before the game putting 40 minutes together and taking it one quarter at a time,” Michaelis explained.
Kentucky (15-7, 6-3) won just one quarter on Monday night when they grabbed a slight 31-30 lead at the break thanks to a Makayla Epps floater in the final seconds of the half.
In a game with 14 lead changes and 10 ties, Missouri was able to grab a little breathing room with a small 9-2 run between the third and fourth quarters.
The Tigers decided to start driving on UK in the second half, getting to the free throw line “a million times in the second half; it was really incredible,” Mitchell said.
“They really attacked us and to their credit won the game.”
Defensively, Missouri did enough to disrupt the Cats’ flow, holding Evelyn Akhator to eight points and six rebounds. UK’s other inside options, Alyssa Rice and Makenzie Cann, who was coming back from the flu, were scoreless.
“They played tough and they were sagging back on the ball handler, kind of sitting in the lap of the post player and I think we still need to go back and work on that,” Mitchell said. “We still could’ve gotten it in there some.”
Missouri’s defense made it especially difficult on Kentucky in the second quarter when the Cats went more than six minutes without a point, settling instead for made free throws, including 10 straight trips to the line.
Taylor Murray made eight straight in that span. The guard had eight points and eight rebounds in the first half despite missing five shots, mostly layups. She finished with 18 points and a career-high tying 13 rebounds to go with four assists. Maci Morris added 14 points.
Epps, who led UK with 20 points and four rebounds, said the team struggled to “find a flow, missed a couple of shots we’d normally hit,” which proved costly.
Missouri got 15 points and eight rebounds from freshman Amber Smith as well as 14 points and nine boards from star Sophie Cunningham, who missed much of the first half in foul trouble.
“I was really proud of the resiliency and toughness that our kids played with,” said Pingeton, who noted it was the final team from the SEC that Missouri had yet to beat since joining the league. “I thought we bent a couple of times, but we never broke.”
Kentucky doesn’t have much time to reset with fourth-ranked South Carolina coming to Memorial Coliseum on Thursday night, fresh off its own loss to Tennessee on Monday.
“Top team in the conference, one of the top teams in the country,” Epps said. “It’s gonna be a fight. They’re coming to Lexington and we’ve got to mentally prepare and bounce back from this one.”
South Carolina at Kentucky
7 p.m. Thursday (SEC Network)