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UK looking to match offensive strides on defensive end

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Andrew Harrison scored 14 points in UK's win at Missouri on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Andrew Harrison scored 14 points in UK's win at Missouri on Saturday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
There's no clouding the positive from Kentucky's win at Missouri on Saturday.

Facing a team that almost never loses at home, the Wildcats built a double-digit lead and held on to it down the stretch. Just days removed from a disappointing loss at LSU, UK refused to wilt.

"I think it just showed our will to win," Andrew Harrison said. "We knew we had to pull it out and we did. It shows that we're growing mental toughness. We do have what it takes to win."

Offense is where UK got it done.

With the home-standing Tigers rallying, the Cats scored on their final four possessions in an 84-79 win. For the game, they shot 53.6 percent from the field and scored 1.25 points per possession, UK's best total in Southeastern Conference play.

"We've matured offensively, and guys executed," said assistant coach Orlando Antigua. "I think they understand what we're asking of them, especially Andrew. Andrew had a great floor game for us."

With his 14 points, four assists and one turnover, Harrison didn't have his best statistical game or even the biggest afternoon on his team according to the numbers, but don't make any mistake about his importance. The freshman was responsible for orchestrating the UK attack.

"He knew when to attack, when to shoot, when to pass," Antigua said. "Defensively he did a pretty good job. But more importantly than that, he kept us organized. When they were trying to throw different things at us, he was able to make the right calls. He's starting to get the feel of what we need."

With its point guard becoming steadier by the day, UK's offense has evolved into an unquestioned strength.

The Cats are first in the Southeastern Conference and sixth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to kenpom.com, relying on a combination of solid 2-point shooting (53.1 percent, 25th nationally), regular free-throw line trips (free-throw rate of 54.5, seventh nationally) and unmatched offensive rebounding (offensive-rebounding rate of 42.7, first nationally).

"We're excited about the way we're playing offensively obviously," Antigua said. "We've got to continue to do that and just continue to work."

On offense, the goal of that work will be to refine and maintain. Defensively, there is more room for improvement.

For the first time in John Calipari's tenure in Lexington, UK has allowed back-to-back opponents to shoot 50 percent from the field in splitting games last week against two sets of Tigers. The Cats have also allowed more than one point per possession in four of their last six outings.

"We've been concentrating on trying to get better defensively as a unit," Antigua said. "I think with a young group, guys have to understand the kind of commitment that you need to make in order to do the things that we want to do. The good thing is that they're coming along, they're getting better."

It's also good news that the Cats can win a game like the one at Missouri even with their defense so clearly a work in progress, particularly considering how fixable some of their problems are.

"We should be a better defensive team than we are right now, but a lot of it's just transition defense," Calipari said. "How about we sprint back? How about--you know, last game we (said) every huddle, 'They're driving right and they're driving right. Make them go left.' And they just kept driving right."

Missouri scored 18 fast-break points against Kentucky, including a number off of made baskets. When the Tigers did have to set up in the half-court, Jabari Brown (33 points) and Jordan Clarkson (28) continually made the Cats pay for not heeding Calipari's coaching.

Recognizing the need to change it up, Calipari went to a 2-3 zone defense for prolonged stretches for the first time this season. By no means was it perfect, but UK's length makes the prospect of using it again an interesting one.

"It worked really well," Harrison said. "We're a pretty big team, so I think it got them off guard because we usually don't play too much zone. Us being so long and being able to deflect balls and stuff, I think that affected them a little bit."

The question now becomes whether Calipari will turn to the zone again with No. 18/14 UK (16-5, 6-2 SEC) set to host Ole Miss (15-6, 6-2 SEC) at 7 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

The Rebels, of course, have a player and personality the likes of which Kentucky has not faced in Marshall Henderson. After sitting out the first two games of conference play, Henderson has returned to average 20.2 points as the Rebels have won four times in five games.

"You just know he's going to shoot," Antigua said. "We're expecting that. He's a talented, talented player. It's going to be a good challenge for our guys--and not just for our guards, but for our entire team--to make it difficult on him. He's going to get his shots up. We know that."

UK was effective against Henderson a season ago, limiting him to 5-of-19 shooting in an 87-74 win in Oxford, Miss. Henderson, however, still managed to score 21 points, a lesson that he is likely to score his points regardless.

Where the Cats aren't conceding points is in transition.

"I think everybody's going to try to test our transition defense because of our size and length," Antigua said. "Once we get in the half-court, I think we're pretty solid defensively as a unit."

To get there, Antigua sees a couple simple steps.

"I think the first part of transition defense is getting back and then communicating," Antigua said. "That's one of the things that we've been honing in on the last couple weeks: just getting back and communicating, stopping the ball first and then identifying the threats in transition."

To Harrison, it's even simpler.

"It's just a matter of sprinting back and just having a 'want to' to sprint back and be a defensive team," Harrison said. "I feel like we'll be much harder to beat if we become that defensive team."

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