COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP)Missouri coach Dennis Gates used to listen with rapt attention as his mentor, the longtime Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, would tell him stories about his time coaching at Kentucky under Joe B. Hall.
Gates learned about the tradition. The passionate fan base. About what it means to be a college basketball blueblood.
”I knew good and well,” Gates said, ”Kentucky was never going to call me. I knew.”
Good thing for the Tigers, who were more than willing to make the call.
With their 42-year-old first-year coach calling all the right shots Wednesday night, Kobe Brown and Missouri blew out the No. 19 Wildcats 89-75 in the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams.
Brown finished with 30 points, and D’Moi Hodge had 15. DeAndre Gholston and Sean East II scored 12 apiece for the Tigers (12-1), who also pummeled then-No. 16 Illinois 93-71 last week and are off to their best start since 2013-14.
”You got to give them credit. That was what they did to us,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. ”Missouri would have beat a whole lot of teams the way they played tonight. They beat us pretty good.”
Missouri led by 12 at halftime and stretched it to more than 20 down the stretch, handing Calipari just his third loss in 14 SEC openers. The Wildcats had been 14-2 against the Tigers and 306-58 against unranked teams under him.
The Wildcats (8-4) could be unranked soon, and perhaps cede their place to the Tigers, who already were receiving votes this week. Their only loss under Gates came against fourth-ranked Kansas in their last game at Mizzou Arena.
Oscar Tshiebwe led Kentucky with 23 points and 19 rebounds, but most of his offense came at the foul line, where he was just 11 of 17. Cason Wallace added 19 points despite playing with four fouls down the stretch.
”I think we got a lot of work we need to do,” Tshiebwe said.
The Tigers got off to a quick start against the Wildcats – they like to play fast all the time – and built a 10-point lead by getting easy baskets in transition. And when they sped up too much, or Kentucky picked off a pass or one went flying into the seats, the Wildcats were unable to take advantage when they coughed up the ball themselves.
Not that shots were falling for them; Kentucky missed 11 of its first 12 from beyond the arc.
It’s not the first time the Wildcats have struggled to score. They plodded their way to a 60-41 victory over Bellarmine last month, and a couple of weeks ago, barely scraped past 50 points in a 63-53 loss to UCLA at Madison Square Garden.
The Tigers, meanwhile, entered fourth nationally in scoring, and it was evident as they built a 42-30 halftime lead.
Nothing changed in the opening minutes of the second half, either: Brown converted a three-point play for Missouri, the Wildcats’ Chris Livingston turned it over, Brown scored again and Livingston turned it over again.
Missouri’s lead eventually swelled to 50-32 with just over 16 minutes to go.
Kentucky spent the next five minutes slowly whittling it in half, closing to 56-47 when Lance Ware followed up a miss by Tshiebwe. But the Tigers answered with eight quick points to regain control, and they eventually got the lead over 20 points before cruising to a statement win over the Wildcats.
”Our biggest opponent is ourselves and our guys know that,” Gates said. ”We don’t focus on the other team as much. We have to continue to move forward. These guys know that. We respect everybody we play but the most important opponent is the person we see in the mirror every morning.”
Kentucky could easily point to two freshmen in the starting lineup and blame its slow start on growing pains. But Sahvir Wheeler and Tshiebwe, the reigning national player of the year, are seniors, and there is plenty of experience in the lineup. And that makes the sloppy turnovers and poor shot selection even more troubling for the Wildcats.
Missouri was blown out by the Jayhawks 95-67 less than three weeks ago, and struggled mightily to beat Central Florida its next time out. But wins over the Illini and Wildcats are certain to raise some eyebrows around the country.
The Wildcats visit Louisville on Saturday.
The Tigers visit Arkansas next Wednesday.
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