COLUMBIA, Mo. — By replacing Willie Cauley-Stein with Dakari Johnson, Kentucky started not only five freshmen, but five McDonald's All-Americans. Has any college team ever done that?
But UK's 84-79 victory at Missouri Saturday was not about flexing glittering high school résumés or first-round NBA Draft projections.
It wasn't about past or future. It was grounded in the here and now.
Kentucky won not because of overwhelming talent (although that had something to do with it) or coaching strategy. To hand Missouri only its third loss in the last 46 home games, and to withstand the towering twin performances of Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson, the Cats went back to the basics not only of basketball but to core of competition itself.
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"All we talked about was passion and intensity," UK Coach John Calipari said. "I didn't care about all that other stuff."
Of course, "other stuff" filled Kentucky's travel bags. In Tuesday's loss at LSU, the Cats got outplayed and outhustled. Familiar questions about body language and individual agendas bloomed anew in icy Baton Rouge.
The only similarity from the loss at LSU was the slippery footing outside the Mizzou Arena.
The Cats "fought as hard as I saw them fight all year," Missouri Coach Frank Haith said. "They were very, very aggressive, and they were on their game."
Kentucky, which improved to 16-5 overall and 6-2 in the Southeastern Conference, needed to play hard and well. Brown, the SEC's leading scorer, poured in a career-high 33 points. Clarkson added 28. The pair accounted for 36 of their team's 47 points in a second half that saw Missouri whittle a 16-point deficit down to three points down the stretch.
"All I was thinking prior to the game was if one of those guys gets going, I don't want this to be Texas A&M," Calipari said in reference to the Aggies beating Kentucky last season on the strength of Elston Turner's 40 points.
With an announced crowd of 11,742 (capacity 15,061) urging them on, the Tigers three times closed within three. Each time Kentucky made a clutch play.
With UK's lead down to 63-59, James Young made a three-pointer. That was part of his 20-point afternoon.
Brown's driving dunk over Julius Randle reduced UK's lead to 66-63.
"I just felt the momentum flipped," said Brown, who scored 22 in the second half. "But I knew they were a good team. I know they wouldn't let that rattle them. I knew we were going to have to keep getting stops. Unfortunately, we didn't get enough of them."
Missouri, 16-5 overall and 4-4 in the SEC, twice closed within three inside the final 90 seconds. Randle eased the tension by posting up for a basket, which was part of an 18-point, nine-rebound afternoon.
After Clarkson countered with a driving layup seven seconds later, Aaron Harrison drove by Brown along the baseline and banked in a reverse layup.
"I didn't get the stop and he scored a bucket," a downcast Brown said. "That's tough. It's kind of killing me right now."
To hold off Missouri, the Cats even overcame a four-point play by Brown, who was fouled by Young. That made it 78-75 with 1:30 left.
"Pretty big time," Randle called UK's resilience.
Whether by design or necessitated by foul trouble, Kentucky used a zone defense to take a 42-32 halftime lead.
Johnson, who made his first college start, exited with two fouls at the 16:19 mark. Cauley-Stein entered and picked up three fouls in less than five minutes.
Kentucky went to a zone with about seven minutes left. In its next seven possessions, Missouri committed more turnovers (two) than it made shots (one). Haith acknowledged a bit of surprise that Kentucky played zone and lamented the foul trouble that limited his team's third player with a double-digit scoring average, Earnest Ross, to five first-half minutes.
As UK took a 35-26 lead, Haith called time to set up a shot for Brown, who swished it from the elbow.
But that barely made a ripple in UK's momentum. The Cats made five of their last six shots to cap 55.2-percent accuracy in the half.
Kentucky's lead grew to as much as 59-43 with 14:32 left. Then Missouri rallied.
"We weren't going to let them just blow us out," Clarkson said.
Kentucky was not going to let a Missouri comeback win the game. At least not without a fight.