LEXINGTON, Ky. - Being the oldest member of a young Kentucky team didn't exempt Julius Mays from the transition toward becoming a leader.
His contributions in Saturday night's 90-83 overtime victory over Missouri not only solidified his qualifications, but might have firmed up the Wildcats' postseason credentials as well.
Mays scored eight points in overtime, including four clinching free throws in the final 33 seconds, helping Kentucky beat Missouri and get the important victory it needed to bolster its NCAA tournament chances.
The fifth-year senior guard who graduated from Wright State and transferred to Kentucky, made six free throws in overtime and scored 21 of his 24 points after halftime for the Wildcats (19-8, 10-4 Southeastern Conference). Kentucky needed a `quality' win to go along with its triumph over then-No. 16 Mississippi last month, and got it by holding serve at Rupp Arena over Missouri (19-8, 8-6) in the marquee game on ESPN College Game Day. The Wildcats' backcourt was key in beating the Tigers.
"Obviously we'd rather win in regulation," said Mays, who also made four 3-pointers, "but to come out with the win, and the guys played as hard as they did -- they fought and battled and not give up -- it was good."
On being a leader, he said, "it definitely takes time."
Archie Goodwin scored all 18 of his points after intermission while Ryan Harrow added 16 with eight rebounds and six assists. That collective effort helped offset Phil Pressey's 27 points and Missouri's determined effort that forced overtime.
Instead, the Tigers saw their road woes continue in falling to 1-7.
Mays had a chance to win it in regulation for Kentucky after rebounding Pressey's missed shot, but his attempt from just past midcourt rimmed off to the left at the buzzer.
"Oh, man. I didn't even know how much time I had," Mays said. "When the guy jumped in front of me, I didn't see the time. I was making sure I didn't turn it over. I saw Archie at the end, and if I had thrown the pass up by the time he jumped in front of me, I don't think he would have gotten it off, honestly."
Alex Poythress added 21 points for the Wildcats, who improved to 2-1 since losing freshman center Nerlens Noel to a season-ending knee injury.
Kentucky shot 30 of 59 from the field (51 percent) and converted 23 of 36 free throws. The Wildcats also outrebounded the Tigers 41-39.
Missouri finished 33 of 76 (43.4 percent).
Alex Oriakhi added 16 points and Laurence Bowers 13 for the Tigers.
The tight ending typified the game's importance for both teams hoping for at-large tournament bids. Though Missouri seemed to be in better shape than Kentucky -- especially after beating No. 5 Florida on Tuesday night -- Tigers coach Frank Haith said there were many teams "in the same boat," needing a substantive win.
Thanks to Kentucky's guards, the Wildcats' postseason hopes remain afloat.
Out of sorts midway through the first half, the Wildcats regrouped to trail by 35-31 at the half before mounting a 31-20 run over the first 10-plus minutes of the second half for a 62-55 lead. Missouri fought back and forced overtime and led twice in the extra period but couldn't hold off determined Kentucky.
"They were more aggressive than us," Haith said of the Wildcats. "They got to the line 36 times and we got to the line 17 times. They were the aggressive team and I think, again, in the second half they got to every loose ball, every 50-50 ball and that was the difference in the game."
Mays converted a 1-and-1 then added a follow basket to keep Kentucky tied at 79. Goodwin made a reverse layup before Poythress and Harrow both made two free throws. Mays' four sealed the game.
"Mays was terrific," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "The shots he made and the leadership."
Kentucky was coming off Wednesday's 74-70 victory over Vanderbilt, earning the close victory with crisp play on both ends of the floor and two huge blocks by freshman center Willie Cauley-Stein, handling duties in the pivot since Noel's injury.
The Tigers entered the game with one of the SEC's most potent offenses and a balanced one at that, with every starter averaging in double figures. Pressey (11.8 points per game) drew most of Kentucky's attention because of his ability to distribute the ball and create turnovers along with scoring.
And while forward Bowers and center Oriakhi presented a dual inside threat, it shaped up as another matchup of guard play.
Living up to the Show-Me state motto, the Tigers quickly displayed their offensive prowess.
Three straight baskets staked Missouri to a 7-2 lead that quickly grew to 17-8 as the Tigers outhustled the young Wildcats on both ends. Pressey's steal and layup for Missouri's second basket and consecutive baseline drives by
reserve guard Earnest Ross that made it 15-8 and epitomized the Tigers' athleticism.
Oriakhi followed with a layup to cap an 8-for-17 start from the field for the Tigers, compared to 4 of 14 for the Wildcats. Missouri cooled off some after that but still was able to build its biggest lead at 28-15 with 4:55 remaining in the first half.
Just as quickly, Kentucky found some poise along with some shooters and closed with a 16-7 run to trail by 35-31 at intermission.
Harrow, who scored 12 Wednesday in his return to the starting lineup, set the tone again with inside drives to score 12 in the first half. Others followed his lead and the results were 3-pointers by Mays and Poythress, whose thunderous dunk from Harrow's lob started the spurt.
Kentucky began drawing fouls as well, converting 7 of 12 from the line. The Wildcats shot 39 percent (11 of 28) for the half compared to 14 of 38 for the Tigers (37 percent).