We all bought a ticket to the Marshall Henderson Show, but instead, what we got on Tuesday night was a feature on just what Kentucky is capable of being when it all comes together.
They went into the Tad Pad and knocked off No. 16 Ole Miss 87-74 thanks to 26 points from Kyle Wiltjer, 24 points from Archie Goodwin and a scintillating defensive performance from Nerlens Noel, who blocked a school-record 12 shots.
And while I singled out some impressive stat-lines for three of Kentucky’s biggest stars, the fact of the matter is that this was a team victory for the Wildcats in every sense of the word.
In the first half, as UK was battling a shortened bench — Willie Cauley-Stein missed yet another game — and a quick whistle that led to massive foul trouble, John Calipari was forced to use a lineup that included Jarrod Polson, Jon Hood and Kyle Wiltjer for an extended period of time. Despite that, Kentucky managed to head into the break trailing Ole Miss by just a single point.
In the second half, Wiltjer continued his hot shooting, reaching his career-high of 26 points with 17 minutes left on the game. When the Rebels started to focus in on him, Alex Poythress took over, helping push Kentucky’s lead to 73-56 with 12 points and four boards during the surge.
And when foul trouble once again destroyed Kentucky’s momentum, aiding a 16-0 run that cut the Wildcat lead to just a single point, it was Noel that took control of the game.
Ole Miss was able to cut their deficit in large part because they used Henderson as a decoy to spread the floor and create mismatches before pounding the ball into the paint, where Noel couldn’t afford to foul out. But the flip-switched for Noel when he took an elbow and got into a bit of a shoving match with Reginald Buckner on a free throw block out at the six minute mark.
From that point on, Noel blocked five of the six shots that Ole Miss took in the paint, including a pair of incredible blocks on dunk attempts. The only shot he didn’t block was a driving dunk attempt by Murphy Holloway that he changed into a missed lay-up.
What makes the win all the more impressive is that Kentucky did all this on the road in a game that they just about had to win.
Beating teams in the top 50 in the RPI on the road is not an easy thing to do, and it’s an opportunity that’s not going to come along that often in the SEC this season. Kentucky did that.
But this win does more than simply bolster a resume that was is desperate need of work.
It builds their confidence. Poythress and Wiltjer have both been inconsistent, but they dominated for stretches during this game. Goodwin has had issues with shot selection and decision-making, and he scored 24 points on 11 shots while getting to the line 14 times and finishing with a 4:3 assist-to-turnover ration. Kentucky went deep into their bench and got contributions from everyone that contributed.
And, most importantly, they withstood a run by a good team on their home floor.
Ole Miss may be overrated at No. 16 in the country, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is the kind of win that can change the course of Kentucky’s season.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.