Kentucky beating Missouri on Tuesday night was supposed to be about as exciting as a scheduled execution.
But with this Kentucky team, little is routine. Or as Associate Coach Kenny Payne said Monday, UK’s consistency is “all over the board.”
Kentucky beat Missouri 72-62 to retain a share of first place in the Southeastern Conference and set up Saturday’s showdown with the other first-place team, Florida.
But along the way, Kentucky’s inconsistencies — surely a product of another season of freshman dependence — converted Mizzou Arena into a basketball funhouse.
“It’s another game for us to figure out who we are,” UK Coach John Calipari said Monday.
The figuring will continue for Kentucky, 23-5 overall and 13-2 in the SEC. But this victory surely erased any doubt about what a difference Bam Adebayo can make.
Adebayo, who had been susceptible to what Payne called “dumb fouls,” drew fouls rather than commit them. He did not get whistled for a foul until 4:17 remained in the game. And like a dominant big man should, he got to the foul line repeatedly.
The difference was striking. Adebayo recorded his first double-double since the UCLA game on Dec. 3. He scored 22 points and pulled down a season-high 15 rebounds. He also matched season highs by shooting 13 free throws and making 10.
When asked about his performance, Adebayo was direct and concise. “I feel like I played great,” he said. No one in the post-game news conference objected.
Calipari used the occasion to challenge pro executives and analysts who project Adebayo slipping in the mock NBA Drafts.
“If someone passes on him in the NBA Draft, they should be fi-fi-fi-fired,” the UK coach said, stuttering the last word for effect. “The reason is he can guard five positions.”
A few moments later, Calipari said passing on Adebayo should be grounds for a firing. “He’s a beast,” the UK coach said.
Given its topsy-turvy nature, Kentucky needed dominance from Adebayo — or someone.
Missouri, 7-20 overall and 2-13 in the SEC, stayed close and made the outcome dependent on the final eight minutes.
“They’re dangerous because they can make perimeter shots,” Calipari said. But Missouri looked like the team ranked last in SEC games in points (67.7), shooting (39.7 percent) and three-point shooting (30.9 percent). The Tigers made only four of 22 three-point shots.
Adebayo — who else this game? — scored arguably the game’s biggest basket. With the score tied at 52-52 and less than eight minutes left, Kentucky went to Adebayo in the post. He scored while drawing Reed Nikko’s fifth foul. Kentucky pulled away from there.
“Some of their big men were in foul trouble,” Adebayo said. “We took control of that.”
But Adebayo stopped well short of declaring himself a go-to guy.
“Through our offense, you can throw it to me,” he said. “Or if you’re open, you can shoot it. It wasn’t really a big emphasis on getting me the ball.”
De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk joined Adebayo as double-digit scorers. Fox had 13 points and Monk 11.
Kentucky led 31-30 at halftime. The margin would have been greater had the Cats made more than six of 12 free throws.
Kentucky, which hadn’t won in the three previous games it trailed at halftime (UCLA, at Tennessee and at Florida), needed a late rally to avoid a deficit at intermission.
The cliché of a trap game surely entered minds.
“It’s a long season,” Vanderbilt Coach Bryce Drew said. “The big question is, how do you respond on those days you don’t feel at your best? And those are the days that all your preparation and all your focus has to really come out and carry you.”
Missouri matched its largest first-half lead with 4:28 remaining. Jordan Barnett drove around Mychal Mulder for a layup to put UK behind 28-24.
The Cats outscored Missouri 7-2 the rest of the half. A free throw by Adebayo with 49.9 seconds left set the halftime score.
Missouri’s 90-70 loss Saturday at Tennessee left Coach Kim Anderson lamenting that his team did not “answer the bell” early.
Kentucky seemed guilty of that here. The Cats’ shaky start included one basket and two turnovers in the first three-plus minutes.
Barnett made the first half’s most memorable play. After blocking Monk’s three-point shot, he retrieved the loose ball and ran to a fast-break dunk that featured the full reach-back load-up.
Isaiah Briscoe’s bullish drive gave Kentucky its largest first-half lead: 20-15. But when UK went more than five minutes without a basket, Missouri rallied.
Again and again, Adebayo made plays or scored baskets and grabbed rebounds. The one thing he didn’t do was commit a foul.
“I wish he would have had more fouls,” Missouri’s Anderson said.
No. 13 Florida at No. 11 Kentucky
2 p.m. Saturday (CBS-27)