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By LARRY VAUGHT
For weeks John Calipari has been almost begging for his team to do two things: show more fight and have fun doing it.
At Mississippi Tuesday night, Kentucky did both and helped convince those who questioned whether the Cats could make the NCAA Tournament, including me, that this team might have time to regroup and blossom by March.
No, the 87-74 victory over No. 16 Mississippi won’t vault UK into the national rankings or into the Southeastern Conference lead. What it did do, though, was give UK its first win over a top 50 team this year and give the Cats a huge does of confidence.
Kentucky had to overcome huge foul problems — four players had two fouls in the game’s first seven minutes — the first half and stayed in the game with gritty defense and big offensive production from Kyle Wiltjer. The second half UK roared out to a 17-point lead at 73-56 midway of the second half and then nearly collapsed when Nerlens Noel — who now has 93 blocked shots after 20 games just like record-setting Anthony Davis did last year — picked up his fourth foul.
Ole Miss went on a 16-0 run and it was easy to envision UK blowing the big lead like it did when it wasted a 14-point lead and lost last week at Alabama. But apparently the Cats learned their lessons in that game because this time they did not wilt.
First, point guard Ryan Harrow hit a huge 3-pointer to end the 16-0 run. Noel got his eighth block — he had five of his record-setting 12 blocks in the final four minutes — and that led to two free throws by Archie Goodwin. Noel blocked two more shots before Goodwin took a lob pass on a fast break from Julius Mays and scored for an 80-72 lead. That’s the same Goodwin who Calipari defended on his website after he was criticized by fans for being too selfish.
Harrow hit two free throws to make it 82-74, Noel got another block and Goodwin made two free throws at 1:23 for an 84-74 lead. Harrow came back with two more free throws after another Noel block to make it 86-74 and complete a 13-2 run that could have turned Calipari’s young players into men.
Consider that UK won even though Ole Miss took 85 shots — 29 more than UK. Consider that UK won despite going 10-for-20 at the foul line in the first half and missing 14 free throws in the game. Consider that UK won despite giving up 26 offensive rebounds.
Noel was sensational. He took only one shot, and missed. He was 2-for-8 at the foul line in the first half and he got a below normal seven rebounds. But he blocked 12 shots, including five in the last four minutes with four fouls.
However, he was not the star of stars. In this game, UK won because of contributions for everyone.
— Kyle Wiltjer had a career-high 26 points and seven rebounds. He was 10-for-19 from the field and is clearly UK’s go-to guy on offense now. He also had three assists and three steals — and not one turnover in 35 minutes.
— Goodwin took only 11 shots, and had 24 because he made six and went 12-for-14 at the foul line. He also helped play harassing defense on Ole Miss star Marshall Henderson, who missed 14 of 19 shots. He also had four assists, his high in a SEC game.
— Alex Poythress went from a non-factor after getting two fouls in three minutes to the player being projected by some as a potential NBA lottery pick. He finished with 15 points and seven rebounds and gave UK a huge boost to start the second half.
— Harrow had 13 points, two assists and even blocked a shot. He was shaky at times, but down the stretch he was money. He had two turnovers and went 6-for-9 at the foul line to help close out the win.
— Julius Mays grabbed a career-high seven rebounds and had four assists to offset a 2-for-6 shooting game.
— Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood gave UK a needed 23 minutes of relief work and combined for five rebounds, two assists and no turnovers. Don’t underestimate their impact in a game where UK was in such deep foul trouble.
Calipari tried to downplay the win after the game. He told ESPN’s Shannon Spake it was a “nice win” but his team had more to do. He’s right about more to do, but this was more than a nice win. It was a potential season-saving win. Now if UK could go to Texas A&M and win Saturday and then come back home to win two games before having to go to Florida and Tennessee, the Cats could get some needed momentum.
However, Kentucky has already shown by what it did after absorbing the 16-0 potential knockout punch from Ole Miss late in the game that it is learning, getting better and does have a chance to position itself back in the NCAA tourney again.