Despite some ugly stretches, the Kentucky Wildcats rolled to their third straight victory, opening SEC play with an 83-56 win over Missouri on Wednesday night at Rupp Arena.
With the win, the Wildcats not only start 1-0 start in conference play, but also avenge a 75-70 loss to the Tigers last season. Mizzou was without its head coach Cuonzo Martin, who was out due to COVID-19. Assistant coach Cornell Martin, in his fifth season, took over as interim head coach.
After missing time recently due to injury, both Lance Ware and Dontaie Allen played limited minutes in this one, so this was a rare game Kentucky had everyone healthy to play.
The 18th-ranked Cats are now 10-2 overall and will close out 2021 against High Point on Friday night in a game that will honor former UK coach Tubby Smith.
A Game of Runs
The first half proved to be a game of runs as the Wildcats jumped out to a quick 7-0 lead and led 17-6 after a basket by junior Keion Brooks.
Missouri would storm back with their own 12-0 run to take an 18-17 lead before Kentucky stopped the bleeding with another 13-2 spurt that put the Wildcats ahead 30-20 on two Oscar Tshiebwe free throws. Mizzou scored to make it 30-22 before Kentucky kicked things into high gear with a 14-5 run to close out the half as a Brooks dunk sent the Cats to the locker room with a 44-27 advantage.
The Tigers opened the second half with a 9-0 run to cut the lead to single digits (45-36) but Kellan Grady hit his second three-pointer of the game to push the lead back to 48-36 as the Wildcats fought off a few final Mizzou runs to move to 10-2 overall.
Sahvir Wheeler pushes the Cats in transition
The Kentucky offense is at its best in transition when Sahvir Wheeler can push the ball and find open shooters. Wheeler is also deceptive off the bounce and has a knack of getting easy layups despite his 5-foot-9 stature.
The Wildcats still struggled with turnovers in the half court offense, but the Kentucky guards - Wheeler, Washington, Grady and Mintz - are just too good on the break and have knocked down enough shots to lead an offense that has now scored in the 80s or better in the last three games.
Wheeler, a Georgia transfer, is currently second in the nation in assists per game (7.7 apg) and brings both experience and stability to the Kentucky backcourt. He still struggles as a three-point shooter, but more than makes up for it as a ball handler and defender, while getting most of his points on pull up jumpers and easy layups.
Keion Brooks returns to top form
After scoring just five points against Western Kentucky, Brooks was engaged early in the offense and scored 11 first half points on 4-of-6 shooting. He finished with 17 points, seven rebounds and two blocks.
The Indiana native has remained a starter this season, but is being pushed by Jacob Toppin for playing time at the four spot. On Wednesday night, Brooks played with great energy on both ends of the floor and was a solid defender and rebounder. As a team captain, the Cats need Brooks to be in the flow of the game to make a deep run come March.
Big O gets another Double-Double
After coming off a record-setting performance against Western Kentucky, Tshiebwe struggled offensively, but still turned in his 10th double-double in 12 games. He finished with 13 points and grabbed 20 rebounds.
Tshiebwe was named the National Player of the Week after his performance against WKU and is now in the conversation for National Player of the Year honors.
Next up, we honor Tubby Smith and his run to the 1998 NCAA Championship. Smith coached at Kentucky for ten years (1997-2007) and led the Wildcats to five SEC titles. He was named the National Coach of the Year in 2003.
Happy New Year, BBN!