Five things we learned in No. 18 Mizzou basketball's 75-70 victory over Kentucky

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune

After jumping out to a 13-point halftime lead, the No. 18 Missouri men's basketball team saw its cushion slip away early in the second half.

Each time Kentucky got within striking distance, however, the Tigers found their stride en route to a gritty 75-70 victory on Wednesday night at Mizzou Arena.

Missouri's Dru Smith led all scorers with 26 points, including a 12-for-14 mark from the free-throw line. Smith also posted seven rebounds, five assists and two steals. 

Two other Tigers scored in double figures in Missouri's second-ever win over the Wildcats. Xavier Pinson finished with 14 points, while Mark Smith scored 11 off the bench.

Davion Mintz led Kentucky with 18 points. St. Louis native and Kentucky freshman Cam'Ron Fletcher played for only one minute of the game, his first action since the middle of December. 

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The Wildcats trimmed their deficit to one with 14:39 remaining and were within three for several stretches. But the young and talented Kentucky squad couldn't find the points to overcome the most experienced team in the Southeastern Conference. 

Missouri improves to 12-3 overall and 5-3 in the SEC with the victory, good enough for sole possession of second place in the league standings. 

The Wildcats fall to 5-11 overall and 4-5 in conference play, further dashing NCAA Tournament hopes for the blue-blood program.

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Saturday presents a matchup of the league's top two teams at 11 a.m. in Columbia, as Missouri hosts No. 10 Alabama, which is 10-0 in the SEC and 15-4 overall.

Before moving on to Missouri's biggest league game in years, here are five things we learned in its five-point victory over John Calipari and Kentucky:

Missouri's Dru Smith, left, shoots past Kentucky's Lance Ware, right, during a game Wednesday at Mizzou Arena.

1. Dru Smith's on-court maturity pushes MU

Since Missouri restarted its season following a week-long pause due to COVID-19 protocols last month, the Tigers are 5-1.

Smith has scored in double figures in all six games and had 18 points or more in half.

His 26-point performance Wednesday topped them all.

On a night when Jeremiah Tilmon drew a tough defensive assignment against Kentucky's Olivier Sarr and scored only eight points — and Kobe Brown was scoreless in 10 minutes of play because of foul trouble — Smith more than made up for that.

The redshirt senior provides an easing nature not many SEC players have. 

"We rely on him every night," Mark Smith said of his teammate. "Dru's a great player. I think he made a lot of great plays today, and he put the ball in the basket. It was great to see him do that. It was fun watching him."

Missouri's Xavier Pinson (1) and Kentucky's Olivier Sarr (30) battle for a loose ball during a game Wednesday at Mizzou Arena.

2. Missouri is finding different ways to win

Wins have come in all forms for the Tigers this season.

Against Bradley and TCU, the Tigers needed second-half pushes to avoid upsets. In its rematch against Tennessee, Missouri never trailed — avenging a blowout loss to the Volunteers earlier in the season.

Missouri is a diverse team, which may be why opinions drastically vary on it nationally. That complexity also makes the Tigers a tough team to break down. Even if Kentucky stopped three routes to a Missouri win, the Tigers had four lanes. 

Having won 80% of their games, the Tigers aren't just lucky with the gritty performances anymore. It's a big part of who they are when adversity strikes.

There likely won't be a more deceiving matchup until March than Kentucky, a team with as much talent as anyone in the SEC on paper but with only five wins this season.

Missouri guard Mark Smith (13) scores a 3-pointer during a game against Kentucky on Wednesday at Mizzou Arena.

3. Mark Smith's move to the bench gives him stability

In his second game removed from Missouri's starting lineup, Smith took a step forward in his productivity.

His 11 points, including 3-for-5 from 3-point range, provided a spark for the Tigers.

The switch to insert Javon Pickett into the starting lineup may have been a way for coach Cuonzo Martin to address one of Missouri's biggest problems: secondary scoring.

Now, Smith can lead the second wave with his specialty perimeter shooting.  

"I don't think it changes that much at all," Smith said of his approach. "It's just, I'm coming off the bench now. It's not that big. When I'm open, I shoot it and try and knock my shots down. And that's about it. I do the same things, driving and things like that. So it really doesn't change too much for me."

Missouri's Jeremiah Tilmon (23), Mitchell Smith (5), Drew Buggs (2) and other teammates leave the court after their win over Kentucky on Wednesday at Mizzou Arena.

4.  Mitchell Smith is a key contributor — regardless of 3-point shooting

The moans grew throughout the night whenever Mitchell Smith attempted a 3-pointer. He missed his last five long-range attempts to finish 1-for-7 from beyond the arc. 

Yet, in a close game, he corralled 12 rebounds and made both of his free throws. 

"I thought Mitch was good. And I even thought that the 3s that he missed were good shots. But we need that," Martin said. "... I thought he defended, I thought he rebounded the basketball well, kept balls alive. That's great for us because we need that. We need him to be a guy that can make shots from the perimeter. Now, we just get a couple more to go down, I think it takes us to another level as a team."

Smith logged 28 minutes against Kentucky, fourth-most for Missouri behind only Pinson, Dru Smith and Tilmon.

Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin celebrates as he walks off the court after beating Kentucky on Wednesday at Mizzou Arena.

5. The Tigers have a huge challenge ahead

Missouri's focus shifts to Alabama, which hasn't had a blemish to its conference record. 

Saturday is the only matchup in the regular season between the teams and will nearly cement the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament should the Crimson Tide win.

The game could also lock up the SEC coach of the year race for Nate Oats. 

Missouri wouldn't lose much ground in the big picture with a loss, as no SEC team has taken down Alabama, including then-undefeated Tennessee on its home floor.

Saturday figures to be the biggest game for Missouri in league play since at least Martin's first year in Columbia. 

Contact Eric Blum at Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.

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