Tonight, the Kentucky Wildcats came into Oxford, Mississippi the underdog, and left with a convincing, if nerve-racking win. This victory gives Kentucky the NCAA résumé win they badly needed, and getting it on the road is a major enhancement. It was a tough, physical and at times, ugly game with lots of careful officiating to avoid non-basketball conflict, and fortunately, there was none.
Great effort by Ole Miss. I'm not sure what possesses people in the state of Mississippi to throw things onto the court, but other than that minor incident, it was a hard-fought game where the Rebels were far more physical than Kentucky could handle. The problem was, they really struggled to score without Marshall Henderson lighting it up, and he didn't have the kind of game they needed to win. Murphy Holloway and Reginald Buckner were heroic in defeat, but in the end, it was not enough.
When was the last time that the Kentucky Wildcats came into Oxford seeking validation at the hands of the Ole Miss Rebels? How about... well, I guess once, back in 2001 when UK sought vindication and lost. So there's that. However, one great thing about this game, and the Kentucky team that played it, is that they lost a large lead and refused to let it beat them.
I think a lot of Kentucky fans, when the game was down to one with 4:29 left, were probably preparing for another disappointment. But the Wildcats channeled a bit of last year's team and refused to lose, making big play after big play down the stretch. It was downright inspiring.
- Kyle Wiltjer, Nerlens Noel and Archie Goodwin all played great ... the game ball could go to any of them and nobody could say boo. But this one has to go to Noel, primarily because of 3 incredible blocks at the rim with 4 fouls on him, a school record 12 blocked shots in all, and heaven knows how much he changed the game in favor of Kentucky. He only scored 2 points, shot an awful 2-8 from the line and made no field goals, but his impact was so profound defensively that when he went out with 4 fouls, Ole Miss went on a 16-0 run. Game ball to Noel.
- Kyle Wiltjer gets the highest form of honorable mention possible. He was amazing, and if he had truly been hot, Ole Miss would never have been close. 10-19 isn't bad for Kyle, but he is capable of going 15 or 16 for 19, even with 12 threes. 26 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals.
- Archie Goodwin also gets a big honorable mention. Goodwin's game is to slash to the basket and get to the line, and he did that big time. Not only that, he made his free throws, going 12-14. He shot 6-11 from the field, had 6 rebounds (3 offensive), 4 assists and 3 turnovers. Archie Goodwin played terrific defense on Marshall Henderson, and that was a big reason Kentucky won.
- Alex Pothress was hobbled with fouls in the first half, but played like an animal in the second. Alex went an efficient 6-9 from the field for 15 points, 7 rebounds, and only 1 turnover. He did finish with 4 fouls.
- Ryan Harrow had a pretty good game. He quit the crazy shooting spree he has been on and played within himself, going 3-7 including a monstrous 3-pointer late in the game to push the lead out to four and begin a Kentucky run that would continue to the buzzer. 13 points on 3-7 shooting, including 6-9 from the line, 3 rebounds, 2 assists 1 block and 2 turnovers.
- Julius Mays has played better. He was abused all night defensively, but did help on the floor. He only went 2-7 for 5 points, but he had 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal and 2 turnovers. Defensively, though, he made Kyle Wiltjer and Jarrod Polson look good.
- Speaking of Jarrod Polson, he played his usual scrappy game and really helped with all the foul troubles. He scored 2 points on 1-3 shooting and had a couple of rebounds to go with an assist.
- Jon Hood played a few minutes, and got 3 rebounds and 1 assist. We needed him in this game.
- I saw a lot of good things, but we just had too many defensive breakdowns for my satisfaction.
- Kentucky was often very patient, and it was good to see.
- Ole Miss Dominated us on the backboards, and that's why they were able to get back from down 17. That and the fact that without Willie Cauley-Stein, we have exactly 1 post defender. Yes, he's a really good one, but as we saw tonight, fouls can make him a non-factor for at least some of the game, and when that happened, Ole Miss seemed to score at will.
- The pick and pop side action with Kyle Wiltjer was unstoppable when the Wildcats didn't push off.
- We still see too many bad decisions, but there were notably fewer of them tonight.
- Kentucky still does not finish defensive possessions that well.
- Four Wildcats in double figures is very positive.
All the nit-picking aside, the best thing about this win was that it was against a quality team in an incredibly hostile environment. This is the kind of victory that gives a team confidence, and they are going to need it, because College Station, Texas, is a long way from the Bluegrass, and Texas A&M has already defeated us once this year.
The good news is, These young 'Cats now know they can win against a good team in a tough spot. They know they are getting better, even though it is still baby steps. What is great to see, though, is that Poythress and Wiltjer are starting to show signs of getting it. Goodwin and Harrow also did nice things, and if they all really start to buy in defensively and stop all the reaching and pushing with the off hand, this team could make some noise yet.