The spectacle was prime for an upset.
Missouri was retiring Derrick Chievous’ No. 3 jersey at halftime. Michael Porter Jr. and Sophie Cunningham were in the building. No. 4 Kentucky was feeling good coming off a 17-point win over then-No. 1 Tennessee and seemed due for a let-down game. MU students filled out the majority of the student section for the first time this season.
The air just felt different inside Mizzou arena prior to Tuesday night’s game.
But on a night where Missouri retired their all-time leading scorer’s jersey, Cuonzo Martin’s team performed anything but how Chievous, and the fans, would have liked.
The Tigers scrapped and fought hard throughout, but points were difficult to come by all night long. This was the glaring issue that led to Missouri’s demise in a 66-58 loss to the hands of No. 4 Kentucky Tuesday night.
It didn’t look all bad straight from the tip, though.
Some tough-nosed defense paired with offensive contributions from Ronnie Suggs, Xavier Pinson and Mitchell Smith gave the Tigers a quick 6-0 run to put the Southeastern Conference bottom-feeders an 11-10 lead with 12:40 left in the first half.
Could this night turn into something Tiger fans have desperately been waiting for all year? Was this culmination of past and present Missouri stardom in attendance enough to motivate this team to do something nobody thought was possible?
Quicker than you could count to Chievous’ number 3, though, Kentucky dug in on both ends and showed why their rafters feature 43 retirees as opposted to Missouri’s seven.
The Wildcats went on a 26-10 run to end the firs thalf with a 15-point lead. Sophomore big-man P.J. Washington couldn’t be stopped, as he racked up 15 points on six baskets in the game’s first 20 minutes — just two fewer field goals than the entire Missouri team.
“We didn’t fight at all in the first half,” Martin said. “We didn’t play hard.”
Inefficiency shooting the basketball plagued the Tigers mightily in the first half, and that 15-point lead was just too much to overcome against the No. 4 team in the country, even though Missouri torched Kentucky in the second half, outscoring them 35-25 and shooting 39 percent from the field — as opposed to its first-half clip of 22 percent.
The second half of this one was promising. It’s impressive to not play your best, yet still easily handle the fourth-ranked team in the country in a half of basketball. The lockdown defense was a big part of it and should be in Martin’s game plan for the rest of conference play.
Oh, and here’s a neat little tidbit for y’all: former-walk-on Ronnie Suggs, who dons Chievous’ No. 3, led the Tigers in scoring with 13 points on 5-for-9 (3-5 3pt) shooting.
“Ronnie believes in Ronnie,” Martin said. “You know, he’s a scholarship player (now). And he showed that tonight.”
Missouri looks to right the ship in a tough road environment as the Tigers travel to Gainesville, Florida to take on the Florida Gators at 3 p.m central time Saturday.