Cuonzo Martin describes Cullen VanLeer as a professional.
Martin isn't calling VanLeer a NBA player but is speaking on the way VanLeer carries himself and how hard he competes.
For the most part, VanLeer is a shooter and a smart defender. So when Missouri’s lead dwindled to just four Saturday, Martin had VanLeer on Kentucky standout Kevin Knox.
The two are similar, Martin said.
“Kevin Knox, even though he does different things dribbling the ball, is really a catch-and-shoot guy,” Martin said. “He can shoot the ball at 6-foot-9. Cullen understands that, because that’s what he is.”
With 15:34 to play, VanLeer chased Knox around every screen. Eventually, Knox, who finished with five points, received a pass, but it barely got into his hands before VanLeer made a play.
VanLeer poked the ball free, dived on the ground and kept the ball alive so that Jontay Porter could scoop it up and score on the other end. The layup pushed Missouri’s lead to six points and was the second-half turning point in Missouri’s 69-60 win over No. 21 Kentucky at Mizzou Arena.
“That was huge,” graduate senior Kassius Robertson said. “Cullen played amazing defense, and we kind of scouted that play that they were running. Cullen read it perfectly, hustled, got on the ground for the ball and came up with it.”
Saturday’s win was Missouri’s (15-8, 5-5) first over Kentucky (17-6, 6-4) in program history.
Robertson and Jordan Barnett led the way.
The seniors, who have been Missouri’s go-to scorers this season, each finished with 16 points. Porter was Missouri’s only other double-figure scorer, finishing with 13 points, but Missouri didn’t win the game on the offensive end.
Its defense helped it start its first winning streak in Southeastern Conference play and earn back-to-back top-50 RPI wins.
“Everybody was helping each other,” Barnett said of the team’s defensive effort. “If somebody drove, somebody was waiting to help. We were taking charges. We just always seemed to be in the right spot and they couldn’t score for a while.”
Missouri flustered Kentucky’s offense and forced the Wildcats, who average 77 points, to shoot just 31 percent from the field and 10 percent from deep and held them to 17 points under their scoring average.
Kentucky coach John Calipari gave Missouri credit but said his team needs to learn to pass the ball.
“We made one jump shot in the first half. The biggest thing is that we still refuse to pass the ball, and I don’t have an answer for that,” he said.
That one jump shot came in a 20-minute period in which Kentucky struggled to get anything consistent going offensively.
Kentucky, which finished the game with just nine assists on 21 field goals, scored a season-low 18 first-half points. That was the lowest Kentucky has scored in a half since Calipari took over the program.
Despite scoring nine points in the first six minutes, the Wildcats scored just nine the rest of the half. Kentucky went on two long scoring droughts — the first was 4 minutes, 52 seconds. The second covered the final 5:55 of the first half.
While the Wildcats failed to get into any rhythm, Missouri didn’t have those problems.
The Tigers, shooting 39 percent from the field in the first half, got their points in bunches on the back of large runs.
Missouri’s first run began after Kentucky took a 9-6 lead. Sparked by a VanLeer 3-pointer, the Tigers went on a 10-0 spree. Freshman Jeremiah Tilmon scored four straight points, and Barnett capped the run with a 3-pointer.
The second run came after Kentucky’s Jarren Vanderbilt scored at the 5:55 mark of the first half. Missouri ended the half on an 8-0 run, which gave the Tigers a 10-point lead at the break.
Once the second half began, it was like Kentucky’s poor shooting disappeared. The Wildcats came out and outscored the Tigers 14-5, cutting Missouri’s lead to one point.
Then came VanLeer’s steal. At the perfect time. Missouri’s 8-0 run put the Tigers back up nine points, and they never lost control from then.
Kentucky, desperate to get back into the game, went into a full-court press that frustrated Missouri late in the game.
Missouri, which turned the ball over 20 times, struggled to break the press at first, but its ability to knock down free throws sealed the game.
The Tigers shot 24 of 33 from the free-throw line in the game and 16 of 19 in the second half.
In the process, it found a way to defeat Kentucky for the first time. But to Barnett, there is nothing special about beating Kentucky. It’s just another win in the books.
“It’s definitely a really good win, but that’s how I look at it, just another win,” he said. “We are just going to keep playing and competing, and, hopefully, we can put together a string of wins. I’m not treating this one any different because of the name on the jersey. Anytime we win, it means a lot and it’s really beneficial for this team.”