Kentucky beat Missouri 90-83 in overtime Saturday night, taking a rather large step toward an NCAA tournament berth.
The Wildcats were awfully resilient, showing fight and determination that have been absent for the majority of the year.
Kyle Tucker of The Courier-Journal in Louisville summed it up nicely when he tweeted this after the game:
Kyle Tucker @KyleTucker_SEC
Frank Haith impressed by UK's "toughness" tonight. Been a long time since anyone used that to describe these Cats.2013-2-24 04:50:59
That this type of performance came on Feb. 23 might be frustrating to Kentucky fans who have expected outcomes like Saturday night’s all season. Now, the question is whether that performance was too little, too late for Kentucky’s tournament hopes.
Up until Saturday, the Wildcats’ tournament resume satisfied a lot of the presumed selection criteria: strong strength of schedule, solid road record and lack of bad losses.
However, there was one glaring hole, and that was the quality wins category. Sure, victories at Ole Miss and against Maryland are nice, but they aren’t going to wow anyone.
Unlike those victories, Saturday’s win over Missouri will hold up and carry weight come Selection Sunday. The Tigers are a legitimate NCAA tournament team and had an RPI of 34 entering the weekend, according to CBSSports.com.
The win over Missouri in and of itself won’t be enough, though. While the Tigers have a solid resume, they still are in the eight- to nine-seed range, according to Jerry Palm’s bracketology on CBSSports.com.
Luckily for Kentucky, it still has some big opportunities left on the schedule. After taking on Mississippi State, the Wildcats play at Arkansas and Georgia before finishing the regular season with a home game against No. 5 Florida.
Win out and Kentucky should feel confident about its position entering the SEC tournament. One slip-up might even be forgivable, but splitting the final four games would probably mean the Wildcats need to win the SEC tournament to get back to the big dance.
Based on Kentucky’s play on Saturday night against Missouri, winning out does not seem all that far-fetched, something that certainly could not have been said when the Wildcats were reeling after their blowout loss at Tennessee on Feb. 16.
Kentucky received big-time performances from three of its enigmatic players. Point guard Ryan Harrow played a complete game with 16 points, eight rebounds and six assists. Alex Poythress made a conscious effort to get to the rim and had 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting. While Archie Goodwin had seven turnovers, all 18 of his points came after halftime.
Down low, Willie Cauley-Stein battled with 12 rebounds and seven blocks, filling the void in the middle left when Nerlens Noel went down with a season-ending knee injury.
Now, the key for the rest of the season is to get those kinds of performances every night from those four players.
Is that likely? It’s always tough to tell when dealing with freshmen, but the win over Missouri in a must-win situation at least provides hope for Kentucky.
If that consistency comes, the Wildcats will find themselves not only in the NCAA tournament but also in a position to do some damage once they get there, especially when considering how wide open college basketball is this season.
Saturday’s win over Missouri showed Kentucky is capable of putting some type of run together in March. It took until Feb. 23 to get to that conclusion, but better late than never.