The Southeastern Conference this season is going to cause a lot of sleepless nights in the Bluegrass. That will certainly be the case if all the 'bottom' tier SEC teams are as tough as Ole Miss, who forced Kentucky to bring its best effort in the SEC opener for both teams.
In this one, all Kentucky did was hold the Rebels to 38% shooting, 4-of-17 from three-point range, outrebound them (32-29) and shoot 57% from the field. And still, Saturday's game was close, with Ole Miss holding a 53-51 lead with 12:00 left. So what proved the difference?
Two things, primarily. A rejuvenated Joe Crawford and a lock-down Kentucky defense.
Crawford's 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting reminded folks why we were all so excited about him in the first place. With a 4-of-5 night from deep, Joe opened up the interior defense, enabling his fellow juniors Randolph Morris and Ramel Bradley to chip away at the Rebels down the stretch. Morris posted another double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) while Bradley came up with big plays time and time again in the final minutes.
But while the juniors' heroics on offense were much needed, this game was not until the Cats tightened up the defense late, keeping the Rebels without a basket for the last 3:38 of the game.
"That late surge, they just took the wind out of our sails and crushed us," Mississippi senior Todd Abernethy said. Abernethy had been doing his best Patrick Sparks impression, keeping his team in the game with 17 points, many at clutch times.
Jodie Meeks and Sheray Thomas each played solid on-ball defense as the game wore on, blanketing the improved Rebels into rushed shots, turnovers and bad decisions.
Don't believe me? Then ask the guy much harder to please than any UK fan.
"That was our best defensive effort of the year," Tubby Smith said. "That's what won it for us. We really defended the perimeter."
With the 68-58 road win at Oxford, Kentucky showed true grit, and a willingness to surrender themselves to defensive intensity. That is a good recipe to remember down the road, when scores may occasionally be hard to come by in Gainesville or Tuscaloosa or Knoxville.
Now the Cats wait and see if the rash of top 25 upsets this week shuffles around the teams. Last week, UK was 34th, if you take the Others receiving votes and string them out. Will another two wins this week, a 12-3 record and eight straight wins be enough to slide the Cats back into the top 25? Hard to say.
One thing is certain, though. If Saturday's game is any indication, the sort of unprecedented 'fold under pressure' troubles Cats fans witness last season will not plague this bunch.
* Kentucky signee AJ Stewart helped his team to a win on Saturday at Lexington Catholic High School's Nissan on Nicholasville Shootout. The 6'7" Stewart finished with 16 points (15 in the first half) and 13 boards in the 65-62 win.
* Seniors Bobby Perry, Sheray Thomas and Woo Obrzut combined for 6 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists in 44 minutes. The freshman class of Jodie Meeks, Michael Porter, Perry Stevenson, Ramon Harris and Derrick Jasper totaled 12 points, 5 rebounds and 5 assists in 51 minutes.
* Fans may have been surprised to see Harris, known affectionally as 'Razor', in the game at a tense time in the first half. Harris grabbed two rebounds in traffic in limited minutes.