Minutes after Willie Cauley-Stein grabbed the final rebound and the Kentucky Wildcats left the court with smiles on their faces, the speakers at Rupp Arena started blaring Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”
It was hard to believe a week ago, but the Cats have risen from the ashes, rebounded from a devastating season-ending injury to Nerlens Noel and moved on from a humiliating loss at Tennessee with their best victory of the season.
Thanks to the heroics of Julius Mays, the out-of-nowhere performance by Alex Poythress and the second-half surge by Archie Goodwin, the Cats rallied back from 13 points down and captured a thrilling 90-83 overtime victory over Missouri on Saturday night in front of deafening crowd of 24,380.
The Cats (19-8, 10-4 Southeastern Conference) believed in themselves after last week’s tumultuous set of events. Now everyone believes UK is back in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament bid.
“They had a will to win today,” John Calipari.
They never stopped fighting. They never stopped believing.
They did neither when they fell behind by 13 points in the first half. They did neither when they coughed up a lead late in regulation and Phil Pressey hit a go-ahead layup with 57 seconds to go. They did neither when Pressey had a shot to win the game at the end of regulation.
Uncle Julius proved to be UK’s wily veteran again. Not only did the graduate student notch a season-high 24 points, he scored 13 of them in the final 3:37 of regulation and overtime.
They fought through mistakes, they fought through Pressey’s 27-point, 10-assist night, and they fought through adversity.
“We just gotta learn how to play through mistakes,” Poythress said. “Mistakes are going to happen. Nobody’s perfect. Everybody’s going to miss shots. You’re going to turn the ball over sometimes. What you do the next play dictates what happens.”
It was fitting of everything they’ve had to fight through of late.
“What I’ve been trying to tell them all year,” Calipari said. “ ‘Guys, if you miss a shot or turn it over or break down defensively, forget about it and just keep battling.’ They did a lot of that today.”
In front of an ESPN nationally televised audience and undoubtedly the loudest crowd of the season, the big stage looked like it was too much for Kentucky early in the game.
Whether it was too much adrenaline or the nerves of a huge opportunity, the Cats failed to connect on good looks, particularly from the 3-point line. They started the game 0 of 7 from behind the arc while hitting just six of their first 21 shots overall.
Missouri, however, couldn’t capitalize on UK’s slow start and failed to put the Cats away when they took a double-digit let.
After missing so much early in the game, Kentucky found its stroke and hardly missed after the 15 minutes of the game. UK hit 24 of its final 38 field goals, a 63.2-percent mark.
There were two key stretches where the Cats caught fire and got back in the game. Four straight field goals late in the first half helped UK close within four points of Missouri at halftime, and then the Cats hit seven of their first eight shots to open the second half at take a 47-43 lead.
Goodwin, who scored zero points in the first 20 minutes, was the catalyst behind the second-half charge. Although he turned the ball over seven times Saturday, he scored the first five points of the second half and 18 after halftime.
“I love how Archie got us going in the second half,” Coach Cal said.
He also loved what he called Poythress’ best game of the year.
Scoring in double digits for the first time since Jan. 29, Poythress posted a line of 21 points, seven rebounds and 8-of-10 shooting. The most encouraging part of Poythress’ game Saturday night was the Cats were able to go him when they needed points in a crunch.
“I don’t know (where that came from),” Calipari said. “The last game, his (heart) monitor showed that he was in the max range for like 15 minutes, which is 13 minutes longer than any other time, 13 minutes longer in the max zone. I guess this game it’s even higher.”
But nobody was more valuable Saturday than Uncle Julius. Kentucky’s wily veteran came up with all the big plays down the stretch when his team needed him the most.
Among his clutch plays, he hit a shot-block-beating 3-pointer with 3:37 to left in regulation, baited Laurence Bowers into fouling him on a 3-point play, and was 8 for 9 at the free-throw line with the game on the line.
“Julius was terrific, the shots he made and the leadership,” Calipari said.
Thirteen of Mays’ season-high 24 points came in the final 3:37 of regulation and overtime.
“Julius is incredible,” Poythress said. “We look for him on and off the court. He’s always there to help with when we’re in need or anything like that. We always look for him for guidance if we’re in a pickle or we’re just confused. He’s always got the right answers.”
Instead of looking to their head coach for answers, Calipari said the Cats turned to veteran leader in times of need Saturday. Coach Cal was particularly pleased with a play where Ryan Harrow turned down a pick-and-roll – against his coach’s wishes – and Mays just looked over to Calipari and said, “I got it.”
“They’re starting to be empowered,” Coach Cal said, “and if they’re empowered, they’re going to be better. That’s what you’re starting to see.”
Lost but not forgotten in the victory were 12 rebounds a career-high seven blocks from Willie Cauley-Stein, 16 points, six assists and a career-high eight boards from Harrow, and a plus-two rebounding margin against the nation’s second-best rebounding team.
“I thought they really played with great toughness,” Missouri head coach Frank Haith said. “They were way more aggressive than us.”
Calipari dismissed the idea before Saturday night that his team’s showdown with Missouri was a big game for Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament chances. There’s no denying now, with the Cats’ most complete performance of the season, that UK capitalized on a big opportunity.
“It’s another stepping stone for us,” Mays said. “Obviously it doesn’t make or break our whole season. We’re just taking it one game at a time and not looking ahead or looking past anyone, just living in the moment, enjoying the moment.”