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Super subs: Miller, Wiltjer propel Cats past Ole Miss

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Darius Miller scored 14 points against Ole Miss, including this dunk on Reginald Buckner. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) Darius Miller scored 14 points against Ole Miss, including this dunk on Reginald Buckner. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)
Through five minutes, it didn't look like Kentucky's starters would be needing any help.

The Wildcats jumped out to an 11-point lead on visiting Ole Miss and John Calipari had not made a single substitution. The Rebels had other ideas though.

Two Terrence Henry free throws tied the game at 24 with less than eight minutes left in the half, only for a pair of bench players to retake control.

Darius Miller and Kyle Wiltjer, the Wildcats' sixth and seventh men, would score 16 straight points to stem the tide and send UK on its way to a 77-62 win.

"I think we got a deep team and Coach can go to a lot of guys," Terrence Jones said. "A lot of guys have confidence to step in and fill that role. Kyle and Darius pretty much always do a good job."

At the half, Miller and Wiltjer were the only two players for UK (26-1, 12-0 Southeastern Conference) in double figures, scoring 10 points apiece and hitting four combined 3s. They would finish with 14 and 13 points respectively and six 3s, but none of the shots from deep was the most memorable play against Ole Miss (15-11, 5-7 SEC).

Down 31-29, Miller received the ball in the middle of the Rebels' troublesome 2-3 zone defense. He rose, sizing up the 6-foot-9 Reginald Buckner, and threw down a dunk that likely supplanted Michael Kidd-Gilchrist's slam against Portland from earlier this season as the highlight of the year.

"Top five, definitely," Jones said when asked to rank Miller's dunk over his two years at UK. "Probably one. It was crazy how he jumped over him."

There was probably a flash when Miller questioned his decision to go up for the dunk, but the only thing really weighing on his mind was responding to Calipari's command to finish with authority.

"I don't think I knew until after it happened, honestly," Miller said. "I was just trying to go up and finish strong. I missed two bunnies before that and I was kind of mad at myself. Coach Cal talked to me about it so I tried to finish strong."

Miller and Wiltjer are in a similar position of having to be patient in a bench role, and the freshman has come to look up to the senior.

"It really shows you a lot when a player can come off the bench and just cram on them in a zone with Darius Miller," Wiltjer said. "He's such a fantastic player and he's given up a lot being on such a loaded team. He'd be starting for a lot of teams. It really shows our character that we all care for each other and we all want to win."
    
Miller's dunk injected life into a team and a crowd of 24,239 that had otherwise lacked it to that point, starting a 14:26 stretch during which the Cats outscored the visitors 39-17 and grabbed a 20-point lead.

"It just gave us more energy, got the crowd more into and it makes the team feel, especially in this building, like the whole game just shifted," Jones said. "It just helps us and gives us a lot of energy."

Miller's flush may be destined for endless replay in the SportsCenter Top 10, but it was Wiltjer that Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy believed to be the difference.

"Kyle (Wiltjer), I thought he came in and changed the game first half," Kennedy said. "The zone bothered him a little bit, I just thought (Marquis) Teague was so fast he wanted to go, go, go. I thought Wiltjer came in and really was a big key for settling them down and all of a sudden other guys stepped up and made shots."

Wiltjer's offensive game and confidence has certainly evolved, but it's his defense that's allowing Calipari to keep him on the floor for extended stretches as he had to do when Anthony Davis was limited to just eight first-half minutes by foul trouble.

"I've just learned a lot from the coaching staff," Wiltjer said. "They really emphasize me playing good defense. It's a lot more angles than I anticipated coming into college. You don't have to be the quickest, strongest guy; you just have to be ready every play and got to be there for the charge, help side and being able to talk. It makes it a lot easier having such a good coaching staff."

Wiltjer's defensive improvement was certainly evident on Saturday, but the Cats' defense as a team was actually less suffocating than it has been of late. The Rebels' field-goal percentage of 47.2 percent on 25-for-53 shooting was the second-highest UK has allowed all season.

"That means if they shot this high percentage, they got layups," Calipari said. "Whether it be breakaways - if you look at it, there must have been, you know, eight or nine layups, which is eight for eight. That doesn't happen to us very often."

Considering the Cats are allowing 35.8-percent shooting from the field on the season, UK should return to the lockdown defensive form that has helped carry them to the No. 1 ranking.

With that defense and Wiltjer growing by the day, UK becomes that much more dangerous.

"I just want to be there for my teammates and do what I can to help my team win because we just want to continue to get better like Cal said," Wiltjer said. "We want to peak at the right time and that's the tournament."

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