Kyle Wiltjer scored a career-high 26 as Kentucky defeated Mississippi Tuesday in Oxford.
OXFORD, Miss. (WDRB) – About 4,000 Ole Miss students started lining up to get inside Tad Smith Coliseum more than six hours before tipoff. The 1,800 that eventually rushed into the building were in their seats two hours before the Rebels' game with Kentucky began Tuesday night.
Morgan Freeman slid into his baseline seat 15 feet from the Ole Miss bench. He wasn't acting. He was thrilled to be part of the Rebels' big basketball moment. Shepard Smith of Fox News, an Ole Miss grad, pulled on a Marshall Henderson jersey and danced during every timeout.
They cranked the sound system to a level where ear plugs were mandatory – and then turned it up. They draped white T-shirts on every seat and then shamed folks into putting them on by flashing images of people dressed in red on the video board.
Here are a few things Ole Miss didn't have a gimmick for against John Calipari's basketball team:
Nerlens Noel's ability to knock shots – a dozen -- into Freeman's lap. Kyle Wiltjer's poise to make three-point shots while scoring a career-best 26 points.
There's more. Archie Goodwin's persistence at getting into the lane, laughing at contact and scoring points, 24 in all, 12 from the free-throw line. Alex Poythress' determination to show Calipari that he indeed has a prime-time motor.
Make it Kentucky 87, Ole Miss 74.
The Wildcats turned the Rebels' Super Bowl into a wake. Kill the talk about Kentucky not having a signature win on its NCAA Tournament resume. They have one. Ole Miss was ranked 16th in both the Associated Press writers' and USA Today coaches' polls.
"It was big for us," Wiltjer said. "They made their run. We got a little rattled there, but we regrouped … this is a huge step for us in the right direction."
Cue the talk about John Calipari's team (14-6, 5-2 in the Southeastern Conference) beginning to figure it out. By the weekend, Kentucky could be tied for second place in the SEC. This was the first time Ole Miss has lost in a dozen home games. Nobody has scored more points against the Rebels.
"It was good," Calipari said. "We played slower than we've played all year and we scored more points. We were trying to grind it out a little bit and make some the guys who don't want to guard, guard people."
There were many signature moments. This is the one that shows the growth in this Kentucky team:
Midway through the second half, the Rebels scored 16 consecutive points, slicing Kentucky's lead to 73-72. Kentucky rushed shots. Ole Miss played with increased confidence. The crowd got up and stayed up. Shepard Smith was high-fiving Ole Miss student managers.
This was the point where Kentucky has sometimes cracked this season while losing six games.
Kentucky failed to crack. Kentucky pushed. Kentucky pounded. Kentucky played with poise. Kentucky scored the next eight points. Kentucky won.
Noel had four fouls and continued to play as if he did not have any fouls. He blocked shot after shot after shot. The dozen blocks are a Kentucky record.
This was the first game when it was actually safe to say that Noel is a better shot-blocker than Anthony Davis. Don't take my word. Take the word of Ole Miss senior Murphy Holloway. He averages 15 points per game.
Against Noel, Holloway missed 10 of 14 shots and labored to score 10 points. Holloway was dazzled by Noel, even though Noel did not make a basket and scored only two free throws.
"He doesn't have to score a point," Holloway said. "He changed the whole game. He's the best shot blocker I've ever seen. Look at his stats."
Here is another set of stats to look at: Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson is the SEC's leading scorer. He finished with 21, but it was an irrelevant 21. He got nine from the foul line. He missed nine of 11 three-point shots. Henderson never got the crowd entertained and consistently roaring.
Next for Kentucky?
Two things: A payback game Saturday in College Station against the Texas A&M team that defeated the Wildcats, 83-71, in Rupp Arena Jan. 12. Plus the Wildcats must show their coach they can follow one dominant performance on the road with another.
"Our thing is way out ahead of us still," Calipari said. "We've got a ways to go."