LEXINGTON, Ky. — Missouri knew the war in the paint was going to decide whether it returned to Columbia with its first Southeastern Conference win of the season.

In the Tigers’ league opener against Kentucky, they had to combat the low-post challenge and battle for every rebound with Wildcats junior Nick Richards and a few others.

Richards was the game’s difference-maker and put his stamp on the foul-heavy matchup from the outset, scoring 14 of Kentucky’s first 16 points, to help end Missouri’s four-game win streak.

The No. 17 Wildcats downed MU 71-59 Saturday afternoon at Rupp Arena in front of a near-capacity 20,396-person sea of blue.

“Nick played really well, his first half was incredible,” Kentucky forward Nate Sestina said of Richards. "He squared up in the post, shot jump shots, rebounded the ball very well, ran up and down the court. He did a lot of stuff people really don’t pay a lot of attention to, when he ran the floor, he opened it up for our guards to drive off of him and his offense was going. So, that was something we were able to go to, especially early in the game, and he was big for us today.”

Richards tied his season-high in points with 21, 17 of which came in the first half. Although Missouri (8-5 overall, 0-1 SEC) kept Richards more in check for the second half, he also finished the game with 12 rebounds and four blocks before fouling out with 3:51 left in the game. All five of Richards’ fouls came in the second half.

Kentucky outrebounded Missouri 36-31 overall and by eight on the defensive end. The Tigers' prominent frontcourt trio of Mitchell Smith, Jeremiah Tilmon and Reed Nikko combined for 13 points in 56 minutes, while picking up 12 fouls and having a plus-minus differential of -16.

“We have got to get more production from, in my opinion, Reed, Mitch and Jeremiah. We’ve got to be productive around the rim,” Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin said. “We felt like as a staff, going into the game, the difference would be who could get interior production, and they won the battle.”

Missouri’s downfall was tied with Richards’ uprising through the game as he drew seven fouls in the game, second only to teammate Ashton Hagans, who drew eight MU personals. The Tigers finished the game with 28 fouls and had seven players with at least three fouls, limiting any comeback attempt.

The Wildcats only committed 19 fouls in the game and made 27 free throws on 30 attempts. MU made 11 free throws.

“We didn't really play well against him in the first half,” Nikko said of Richards. “We kind of came out lackadaisical. And letting a guy with that kind of talent get in rhythm early, you can't let a guy do that. He sees a couple shots go in and his confidence goes through the roof.”

Before Richards’ presence flipped the game, the Tigers jumped out to an 8-point advantage midway through the first half.

The 10-0 Wildcat run that answered, however, permanently awoke the dormant cheering sections and more importantly, gave Kentucky the lead back for good.

Offensively, Missouri struggled for a long period in the middle of the game. It scored only 20 points during a 22-minute stretch from 11:33 left in the first half until there was just under nine minutes left in the contest.

Kentucky (10-3, 1-0) continuously held a double-digit lead for the last 13:51 of the game.

“I think there are lessons we can take from (the game), but we also have to come in ready,” Missouri guard Dru Smith said. “We can’t come in looking at it as a game for the experience … We came in with energy and we were locked in there at the beginning and I think we just kind of tailed off there toward the end of the first half and I think we just have to keep our energy and keep our effort up.”

Kentucky’s Immanuel Quickley led all scorers with 23 points. Missouri was led by Dru Smith with 11 points as their only double-digit scorer of the game.

Kobe Brown finished the game with nine points, while Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith had seven each.

Tilmon didn’t start Saturday’s game after also missing Monday’s win over Chicago State. He was available from the outset after a foot injury kept him out earlier this week. Tilmon picked up four fouls in eight minutes of play.

“He’s fighting through it,” Nikko said of Tilmon, who started for the second straight game in Tilmon’s usual center position. “I know he's in pain.”

“He’s fine, he was on the floor. He’s fine,” Martin added of Tilmon.

MU returns to action Tuesday night for its home conference opener against Tennessee. The Volunteers lost by 14 in their SEC opener on Saturday to LSU.

eblum@columbiatribune.com

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