The skinny: As John Calipari often says, it was "gut time" in Oxford, Miss. Kentucky had watched almost all of its once 17-point lead evaporate as Ole Miss charged back with a 16-0 run to make the score 73-72 with just over four minutes remaining. The Wildcats had gone cold after their best offensive stretch of the season and it seemed they might once again miss out on a badly needed quality over the No. 16 Rebels. This time, however, UK wouldn't wilt. Ryan Harrow hit a clutch 3-pointer to end a scoring drought of over six minutes and the Cats hit 9-of-10 free throws after struggling from the line all night to close out an 87-74 win and move to 14-6 overall and 5-2 in Southeastern Conference play.
The difference: Nerlens Noel and his school-record 12 blocks. With 9:52 on the clock and Kentucky enjoying its largest lead at 73-56, Noel picked up his fourth foul, all of which came in the second half. The freshman big man had six blocks to that point and had all but eliminated the Rebels' inside game, but when Noel went to the bench, Ole Miss went into attack mode, scoring back-to-back buckets.
Recognizing the importance of his rim protector, Calipari reinserted Noel, but the Rebels continued to test the interior, capitalizing on Noel's fear of picking up his fifth. But when the UK lead was cut to one, Noel had had enough of being hesitant.
Following a 30-second timeout and Harrow's big 3-pointer, he took his shot-blocking to another level and accomplished something no Wildcat ever has in the process. He blocked five shots in the final 3:35 including two dunk attempts and two layups, giving him a UK single-game record 12 blocks, and he did it all while just one whistle away from spending the rest of the game on the bench.
He didn't make a single shot from the field and scored just two points, but there wasn't a more important player on the floor. Noel now has an astounding 46 blocks over his last six games and 95 on the season. Anthony Davis had 93 blocks through 20 games last year.
Player of the game: Kyle Wiltjer. If not for Wiltjer, Noel's record effort likely would have come in a loss. He helped UK hang around in the first half, scoring 17 points as UK trailed 38-37 at the break. By the 15:59 mark of the second half, he had a career-high 26 points, which ended up being his final total for the evening. Wiltjer made 10-of-19 shots from the field and added seven rebounds, three assists and three steals against no turnovers. He is continuing his emergence as Kentucky's primary offensive threat.
Turning point: Harrow's 3. With the crowd at Tad Smith Coliseum smelling blood and the Rebels in the midst of a run, the ball came to Harrow at the top of the key. He had an opening to shoot, but instead passed off to Wiltjer. He remained in place though and called for the ball back from Wiltjer. When he received it, Harrow didn't hesitate. His 3 triggered a 15-2 game-ending run.
Key stat: Field-goal percentage. There simply aren't many times a team attempts 29 fewer shots than its opponent and wins, but that's exactly what UK did against Ole Miss. Because the Cats attempted 17 more free throws than the Rebels and allowed 26 offensive rebounds, Kentucky had far fewer looks at the basket, but the Cats managed to get by because they shot 28 of 56 (50 percent) from the field and held Ole Miss to 28 of 85 (32.9 percent). Marshall Henderson, the SEC's leading scorer, had 21 points, but was just 5 of 19 from the field, including 2 of 11 from 3.
Unsung heroes: Archie Goodwin and Alex Poythress. Overshadowed by Wiltjer and Noel, the Cats don't win without the two talented freshmen. Goodwin had a team-high three turnovers, but had an otherwise efficient game with 24 points on 6-of-11 shooting to go with six rebounds and four assists. He also shot 12 of 14 at the free-throw line while his teammates were a combined 11 for 23. Poythress, meanwhile, exploded in the second half after being limited in the first by two quick fouls. He had 12 of his 15 points and six of his seven rebounds after the break.
He said what? "We played slower than we've played all year - which is what we wanted to do - and we scored more points." - Calipari
"I was pleased with Ryan's point-guard play. He had been gone for two weeks, missing in action. He played today." - Calipari on Harrow
"We were being unselfish and most importantly we were getting some good stops and pushing it in transition." - Wiltjer on the stretch during which UK scored 36 points over the first 9:42 of the second half
"What happens is when they make that run, you can't settle for all jumpers. You gotta go in and get fouls. You gotta make a play for your teammates." - Calipari on the Ole Miss run
"It was big for us because they made their run. We got a little riled there, but we regrouped in that timeout. So I'm proud of the guys for stepping up because this is a huge step for us in the right direction." - Wiltjer
"It's good, but our thing is way out ahead of us still." - Calipari on the victory
What this one means: The knock on UK's NCAA Tournament profile has been the lack of a quality win. Now not only do the Cats have a victory over a team ranked in the top 25 of the polls and top 40 of the RPI, they have a road win over such an opponent. With 11 regular-season games left still, there is much work ahead, but UK now has more room for error heading into a Saturday road rematch with a Texas A&M team that won in Rupp Arena on Jan. 12.