As John Calipari told it, he had a telling conversation with Cuonzo Martin before Kentucky played Missouri on Tuesday night.
Martin complimented Kentucky, which three days earlier defeated then-No. 1 Tennessee.
“Boy, your team plays hard,” Martin told Calipari.
The Kentucky coach returned the compliment by saying, “I’ve already told my team how hard your team plays.”
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Martin then made sure Calipari understood that this mutual admiration society did not mean the competition would be anything but intense.
“We’re not going to give you one here, you know that,” the Missouri coach said.
As he recalled the exchange, Calipari said, “We both laughed. Because I knew it was going to be a war.”
The war saw Missouri largely deny Kentucky the chance to shift into its preferred higher gear. But UK showed it can be effective playing basketball going half-court to half-court.
Despite only one fast-break basket, Kentucky beat Missouri 66-58.
“We should be — if we’re going to be special — a defense-rebounding team,” Calipari said. “That’s what we are. … The one thing Missouri does, they don’t give you breakout baskets. It’s one of the main things they do.”
PJ Washington, who has thrived at any pace of late, and Tyler Herro led UK with 18 points each. Ashton Hagans made a career-high two three-pointers in scoring 10 points (his first double-digit total since Jan. 26).
Missouri had only one fast-break basket, which meant going against a stout Kentucky defense set and ready.
As a result, Missouri became the eighth UK opponent in 13 Southeastern Conference games to score either a season-low point total or match the second-lowest output. The Tigers’ low was 55 in a November victory over Kennesaw State.
Kentucky’s depth of “bigs” came in handy, and not simply because the lanes were crowded with often-bruising action. Reid Travis sprained his right knee early in the second half and did not return. EJ Montgomery picked up a fourth foul with 8:44 left.
“It’s hard …,” Washington said of the injury and foul trouble complicating Kentucky’s night. “It was time for Nick (Richards) to step up.”
Kentucky improved to 22-4 overall and 11-2 in the SEC. The latter kept the Cats one game behind Tennessee in the regular-season standings.
Missouri fell to 12-13 overall and 3-10 in the league.
Kentucky had no fast-break points in the first half. This did not prevent the Cats from posting its highest-scoring half since burying Vanderbilt under a 45-15 halftime deficit on Jan. 29.
Operating exclusively in half-court sets, Kentucky took a whopping 14 three-point shots in the first half. Five went in as UK took a 41-23 lead into intermission.
Not surprisingly, Kentucky sped away from Missouri shortly after Missouri’s foul-prone center, Jeremiah Tilmon, picked up his second foul and went to the bench with 14:59 left.
Tilmon had fouled out in four of the 11 SEC games he had played in previously this season. Five times overall he had fouled out in 15 or fewer minutes on the court.
After Tilmon fouled out in 85-75 loss to South Carolina, Missouri Coach Cuonzo Martin said, “We are a different team (without Tilmon). … It takes the momentum from the team. We have to figure that thing out.”
Tilmon played five minutes in the first half. Shortly after he went to the bench, UK used a 9-0 run to take the lead for good at 19-11.
UK steadily expanded its lead, which reached its first-half zenith on Richards’ dunk while being fouled with 6.4 seconds left. His free throw set the halftime score.
In a half that had only one fast-break basket (by Missouri with 1:40 left), the action in close quarters brought a physical challenge. Immanuel Quickly twice crumpled to the floor. On the first, he ran blindly into a screen set by Mitchell Smith. On the second, he collided with Herro as both players tried to grab a defensive rebound.
Richards, who had four rebounds in seven first-half minutes, started the second half. But when Missouri opened the half with five quick points, UK called timeout 51 seconds into the second half.
Travis replaced Richards. This didn’t last long. Eighteen seconds after re-entering the game, Travis picked up his third foul and returned to the bench.
Two three-pointers by Hagans inside a two-minute span kept Missouri at bay.
Kentucky’s only points in transition came with 11:44 left. After a wild Missouri shot did not come close, UK took off. Hagans threw a pass from near mid-court that Washington dunked to put the Cats ahead 54-39.
Missouri kept competing. The Tigers got as close as 64-58 inside the final minute. Making eight of eight free throws in the final 3:14 helped Kentucky prevail.
“Thank goodness we made free throws down the stretch …,” Calipari said. “For us, this is a big-time win. It’s a road win. You win on the road in this league, you got something done.”
Auburn at No. 4 Kentucky
1:30 p.m. Saturday (CBS-27)