For the Missouri Tigers this season, they simply can’t go into opposing gyms with a lack of offensive depth. And that’s exactly what happened to the Tigers as they fell at No. 6 Kentucky 90-77 at historic Rupp Arena on Tuesday.
Missouri, a team that hasn’t been dismantled on the road despite playing Kansas, Minnesota, and Pittsburgh, kept it close against the Wildcats. The Tigers trailed by as many as 14 in the first half but fought to close the gap to single digits multiple times. However, they never could get over the hump.
Almost all of the Tigers’ scoring came from just a trio of players — Noah Carter, Sean East II, and Tamar Bates — and that’s not an exaggeration. Bates and East combined for 37 points on the night. Carter, who had a tough stretch the past month and change scored more points in the first half than six of his 14 games this season with 13 on his way to the first 20-point performance of his career.
But outside of those three, no one else could help get Missouri over that hump much like the previous game against Georgia. On Saturday, the Tigers’ bench just generated just three bench points. Against the Wildcats, it didn’t improve by much as MU’s bench generated just 10 points, which came from Connor Vanover, Jesus Carralero-Martin and John Tonje. None of Mizzou’s freshmen played, including Anthony Robinson II, who was absent with a non-COVID illness.
This presented opportunities for Curt Lewis, John Tonje, and Mabor Majak, veterans you would expect to step up on the road. However, they combined for just two points that came off of a pair of Tonje free throws.
On the other hand, Kentucky featured five double-digit scorers with Rob Dillingham (23), Tre Mitchell (20), D.J Wagner (16), Antonio Reeves (14) and Aaron Bradshaw (10). In terms of bench points, the Wildcats tallied 26.
“I see some great one-on-one players who can make shots,” Dennis Gates said on Kentucky. “They have versatility, they can take of the basketball and they have the 3-point threat.”
While the Wildcats ultimately pulled away for a 13-point victory, both teams traded blows and it appeared as if the game would be a nail-biter early. Carter, Honor, and East each capitalized on their shots early, though Kentucky matched the Tigers’ efficiency by starting six of seven from the field. Mitchell lit up the Tigers from behind the arc knocking down a pair of 3-pointers while also hitting a jumper. Kentucky led just 14-12 shortly before the under-16 mark, but the next three minutes could be looked at as a crucial moment that helped decide the game.
Turnovers, something that Missouri usually doesn’t have to worry about, doomed the team and helped Kentucky open up a sizeable lead. TOs by Bates, Honor and East, along with an illegal screen by Carralero-Martin, all led to the Wildcats capitalizing on the other end of the floor, and in a minute before the under-12 timeout, Kentucky had extended its lead to six, which climbed to eight and eventually 14 as the Tigers failed once again to protect the 3-point line.
On the night, Missouri knocked down eight 3-pointers thanks to the aforementioned trio, but the Wildcats weren’t far behind with seven, including five in the first half.
But, as we’ve seen throughout the 2023-24 season, what brings a level of encouragement and comfort is that Missouri did not quit. More specifically, East, whom Dennis Gates called the most improved player in the conference, did not back down against the Wildcats.
East brought Missouri within seven following UK taking a double-digit lead midway through the first half. Following Kentucky going back up by six, East once again willed the Tigers back within a possession with a jumper and free throw making it a three-point game at 37-34, but that’s the closest that MU got the rest of the way.
In the second half, the Tigers shot just 9-30 from the field and were outrebounded 22-13. No comeback was possible as the team finished 1-15 on its last 16 shots to fall to 9-8 and 0-2 in league play.
Missouri returns to the court on Saturday where it will play a South Carolina team that's off to a 13-2 start. The Gamecocks’ loss to Alabama 74-47 this evening in Tuscaloosa. Conference win No. 1 is definitely in the Tigers sights despite a disappointing start so far.
“We are a well-connected group,” Carter said. “We’re never going to fall. If we get hit we’re going to get right back up. We just got to keep fighting and consistently keep fighting as hard as we can. We know we’re right there, we’re so close. We just got to keep working and keep playing and get ready for Saturday.”
The game will be at 2:30 PM CT on the SEC Network.