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By LARRY VAUGHT
A team desperately in need of a NCAA Tournament resume-building win not only got that, but it may have also found its heart.
Kentucky overcame a sluggish start to beat Missouri 90-83 in overtime here Saturday night because this time it simply had the “will to win” that coach John Calipari thought had been missing way too much this year. But not this time.
The Wildcats had a bevvy of stars — and the most raucous Rupp Arena crowd of the season — to overcome a 13-point first-half deficit with its most spirited and clutch play of the season.
This game had a lot of defining moments for UK. One came at the end of regulation when Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress combined to stop sensational Missouri guard Phil Pressey from scoring inside to win the game. More came when Missouri took a 79-77 lead with 3:18 left in overtime when the Cats went on a 6-0 run that featured field goals by Julius Mays and Goodwin, two free throws by Poythress and a terrific hustle play by Willie Cauley-Stein to give UK possession.
Calipari called it a “gut it out” game for his Wildcats. Goodwin called it more of a statement for a team still trying to recover from losing Nerlens Noel to a season-ending knee injury three games ago.
“We fought hard,” said Goodwin. “That’s what it came down to at the end. We wanted it more than they did. We showed a lot more toughness than we have before. This just shows what we can do.”
The Cats were dominated on the boards the first half by the nation’s best rebounding team, but in the second half UK won the board battle 23-12 with its most physical play of the season.
“I thought they really played with great toughness,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said. “Way more aggressive than us. The beginning of the second half they got to every loose ball, every 50-50 ball. That was the difference in the game how they came out with toughness in the second half.
“They have great fans and energy in the building. I thought they played off the crowd. We outrebounded them the first half, but they dominated that part the second half.”
Kentucky did not have a star of the game. Instead, it had plenty of stars.
“The biggest thing is that they had a collective will to win today,” Calipari said. “We had some bad turnovers late in regulation but we just kept playing. Two weeks ago those turnovers would have led us to let go of the rope.”
But not this time. Kentucky yanked the rope so hard that it pulled Missouri down because of its overall team play. Just consider:
— Mays had a carer-high 24 points, including eight in overtime. He’s become Mr. Clutch for UK. “I don’t know where we would be without him,” Goodwin said.
— Poythress had 21 points — his sixth 20-point game of the season but only his second in SEC play — and seven rebounds. Calipari said he didn’t know what ignited Poythress to make a series of quick, powerful moves to the basket and finish plays like he has not done all season. “I was very proud of the way Alex played. It was the best he had played all year,” Calipari said.
— Goodwin didn’t score the first half but might have played his best of the season the second half. He had 18 points in the second half on a variety of plays and his defense late on Pressey was key.
— Harrow had 16 points and collected a career-high eight rebounds — a huge turnaround for a player who had one rebound and no points in losses to Florida and Tennessee. “Ryan played well again. He had eight rebounds and six assists. We will win games if he plays like that.”
— Cauley-Stein had 12 rebounds and seven blocked shots, both career highs. And he battled and battled inside for 35 minutes, something he has not been able to do for that long in a game before.
And Calipari wanted to include the fans in his list of game stars.
“This was as good a crowd and as impactful a crowd as I have ever coached in,” Calipari said. “This team needs that.”
True, but what this team needs even more is that heart and soul it reached down and found. Maybe it came from Mays’ leadership. Maybe it came from Poythress’ better play. Maybe it came from Harrow or Goodwin. Maybe it was Cauley-Stein playing like Noel.
Whatever it was, Kentucky needs to keep it.
“If we play like this, you see what we can be,” Goodwin said. “This is how we have to keep doing it. Now we see what we can do and what can happen when we all play the way we can.”