UK Men's Basketball

John Clay: Kentucky enjoys growth spurt right when it's needed most

Kentucky forward Alex Poythress stole the ball from Missouri forward Tony Criswell. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff
Kentucky forward Alex Poythress stole the ball from Missouri forward Tony Criswell. Photo by Mark Cornelison | Staff Herald-Leader

The thing about kids, they grow up so fast.

Sometimes, they grow up in a single night.

That's what happened Saturday night. Right there on ESPN's GameDay. Right there before a national television audience and a packed, raucous Rupp Arena crowd. Right there before our very eyes.

In a must-win game — sorry, John Calipari, Bell Curve or no Bell Curve — this was a big game — Kentucky found a way to win a must-game, beating Missouri 90-83 in overtime.

Julius Mays was already a grown-up. We already knew it. He proved it. The senior scored 24 points, hitting key three-pointers, duping Missouri's Lawrence Bowers into fouling out by getting the Tiger up in the air and fouling Mays on a three-point attempt.

But Alex Poythress and Archie Goodwin were different stories. Both are young and had played young — down and up and down again. Until Saturday night.

Poythress finished with 21 points and seven rebounds. He made eight of 10 shots and hit four of six free throws. He was a battling beast.

"That's the best Alex has played all year," Calipari said.

After a scoreless first half — one in which the freshman registered a minus-13 on the plus/minus register — Goodwin scored 18 points in regulation and overtime, making smart drives to the hoop, plus hitting a pair of three-pointers, the first time since the Louisville game on Dec. 29 that the Arkansas native had hit multiple threes in a game.

"I loved the way Archie started the second half," Calipari said.

Then there was Ryan Harrow, who had back-to-back goose eggs at Florida and Tennessee recently. The point guard scored 16 points on Saturday, made six assists and pulled down a career-high eight rebounds.

"We're going to win games if Ryan plays like that," Calipari said.

That was the thing. When Kentucky most needed a total team victory, it got a total team victory.

"They're starting to become empowered," Calipari said. "If they're empowered, they're going to be better. That's what we're starting to see."

And, maybe we're starting to see, well, some toughness.

"I think they got to every 50-50 ball in the second half," Missouri Coach Frank Haith said. "That was the difference in the game."

Haith also said this: "They were the aggressive team."

Example: Trailing in rebounding at halftime 27-18, UK outrebounded Missouri 23-12 in the second half and overtime.

Isn't that what Calipari has been looking for from his club all season long?

Said Calipari, "The biggest thing is they had a collective will to win today."

With Missouri up 35-31 at the half, the big question at halftime was adjustments. What sort of adjustment could Calipari make to keep Missouri and lightning-quick point guard Phil Pressey from driving the ball to the basket almost at will.

Turned out, the key adjustment turned out to be Goodwin. He started beating Missouri off the dribble. After a scoreless first half, UK's freshman guard scored a quick seven points and suddenly Kentucky had the lead.

Better still, it kept it. And when it lost it in regulation, UK got it back in overtime and kept it right there. The crowd, that GameDay crowd, didn't hurt either.

"I thought they played off the crowd," Haith said.

"This was as good a crowd and impactful crowd as I've ever coached in a building," said Calipari.

Down the stretch, the Cats made shots at the foul line by keeping Willie Cauley-Stein off the foul line. The freshman center played well, except at the foul line, where he was 1-for-7 after missing two free throws with 3:34 remaining.

After that, Kentucky made eight from the stripe. All in overtime. All when the Cats had to make them.

Just like veteran teams do.

And, by the way, we should mention: Without Nerlens Noel.

"We got better today," Calipari said. "We showed some things that now we know we can do."

They're growing up.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader