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Cats prove they still control their own fate with win at Mizzou

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Aaron Harrison scores two of his team-high 21 points to give UK a five-point lead with 19 seconds left in an 84-79 win at Missouri. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Aaron Harrison scores two of his team-high 21 points to give UK a five-point lead with 19 seconds left in an 84-79 win at Missouri. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Even if they might try to block out the outside noise, the Kentucky Wildcats don't live in a vacuum.

After a loss at LSU on Tuesday, they heard their toughness being questioned. They heard fans and pundits wondering whether they would ever reach their potential. They even heard the talk about their togetherness after a play on which Dakari Johnson's teammates failed to rush over to help him after a fall.

Frustrating as it may be that UK hasn't progressed as quickly as everyone might like, there is still solace to be taken in the criticisms being lobbed at the Cats.

"Look, these guys see what's--they know," John Calipari said. "They know. And the stuff that anyone's saying about this team and these players, they can change it."

No one is saying Kentucky lacks the talent needed to live up to its preseason hype. No one is questioning whether the Cats have the pieces to make a deep NCAA Tournament run.

"It's that you don't compete, that you don't play with enthusiasm, you don't sprint, you're into your own self," Calipari said. "Well, you can change all that."

On Saturday, the Cats showed they might do just that.

No. 11 UK (16-5, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) notched arguably its best win of the season, taking down Missouri (16-5, 4-4 SEC), 84-79. The Tigers lack the top-10 ranking Louisville had when Kentucky beat the Cardinals, but did have one of the SEC's best home-court advantages on their side in Mizzou Arena.

"It was pretty big, especially in this building," said Julius Randle, who finished with 18 points and nine rebounds. "I think Coach had told us that they have like three losses since (Frank Haith) got here, so pretty big time. That's a tough environment to play in. We made some errors down the stretch but we kept fighting and we were able to hold them off."

UK led by 10 at halftime and built the margin to as many as 16 points with 14:32 left in the second half, but Missouri and its stellar backcourt wouldn't wilt. Behind Jabari Brown (33 points) and Jordan Clarkson (28), the Tigers charged to within three points with 7:07 to play with a 20-7 run.

"Coaches told us they were good scorers but I didn't think they were going to get off like that," James Young said. "They had a nice right-hand strong dribble and that's what they did."

With leading shot-blocker Willie Cauley-Stein limited by foul trouble and a continuing slump, UK struggled to contain penetration. The Cats even turned to a 2-3 zone defense, which was more effective than Coach Cal's preferred man-to-man in spite of some early hiccups.

"We were going to go every free throw and then we went zone twice and they scored twice and I went, 'There's your zone,' " Calipari said. "And then I went back to it again and then we started screwing up the game a little bit. This is a long team. This is a big team. This is a good zone team if they'll scramble."

Zone or not, there was no slowing Missouri on this day. The Tigers shot 52.9 percent from the field and 56.3 percent in the second half, scoring 1.20 points per possession, most for a UK opponent this season.

All that meant the Cats would have to win with offense, which is precisely what they did. UK shot 53.6 percent as a team, 8-of-14 from 3-point range and committed just seven turnovers. When UK needed a crucial bucket, Aaron Harrison (21 points), James Young (20), Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison (14) delivered.

Missouri never got closer than three points as Aaron Harrison scored UK's final four points -- including a reverse layup to make it a two-possession game with 19 seconds left -- to close out the victory and move UK's record on the road to 2-3 this season.

"I thought Aaron was really good today," Calipari said. "And I said, 'If you look like you did against LSU, you will play five minutes in that game. I won't play you.' "

It wasn't Aaron Harrison's 5-of-13 shooting at LSU or the four turnovers Coach Cal was worried about either. Instead, it was all effort. The same goes for the team as a whole.

"You can't emphasize everything with these guys," Calipari said. "All we talked about was passion and intensity. I didn't care about any of that other stuff. Play. But again, I loved the fight, I loved the emotion they played with, the enthusiasm they played with."

Making that performance all the more impressive was the travel nightmare the Cats faced in flying to Columbia, Mo.

With an ice storm hitting the area hard -- a common thread among UK road destinations this season -- UK landed in St. Louis, Mo., on Friday night and waited for the team bus to meet them. The Cats finally arrived in Columbia at midnight CT before meeting briefly and going to bed. UK then skipped its regular morning shootaround ahead of the noon CT tip.

"It was really hard for us, but we actually got a lot of sleep out of it so I think that probably helped us and helped us focus during the game," Young said.

Whether a good night's sleep was a factor or not, UK has now played its best and worst games in the span of five days.

"All this stuff, we lose to LSU - and they beat the crap out of us," Calipari said. "They outcoached us, there was nothing--that was one of those games. And we didn't look very good. So we play a little bit better. I mean, are we this team or are we the other team?"

That's not so much a question as it is a challenge.

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