The skinny: It wasn't the dominating performance some fans likely imagined after Texas A&M won in Rupp three weeks ago, but Kentucky will surely take it. Facing the Aggies (13-8, 3-5 SEC) for the first time ever on the road, the Wildcats (15-6, 6-2 SEC) took a 72-68 overtime decision on the strength of some clutch free throws and a couple big defensive stops.
Julius Mays and Nerlens Noel led the way with 19 points each as UK shot 21 of 44 (47.7 percent) from the field to overcome a season-high 19 turnovers. The miscues opened the door for a late-game A&M rally, as the Cats committed turnovers on six of their final seven possessions of regulation. The Aggies sent the game to overtime after trailing by eight points with less than four minutes.
It should come as no surprise that it was Elston Turner who hit the big shot. Turner - who scored 40 points in Rupp Arena on Jan. 12 - made just 7 of 23 from the field, but dropped a short jumper with 1.4 seconds remaining to tie the game at 62-all.
Once it got to overtime, Noel won the tip and scored on UK's first possession to calm the Cats' nerves. A&M would once again battle back, but the Cats made 8-of-10 free throws in the extra period - including 5 of 6 from Mays - and rested much easier after they rebounded a Turner three that would have tied the game with a second left.
The difference: Mays' veteran presence. When Mays opted to spend his final season of collegiate eligibility at UK, this is exactly the kind of performance John Calipari hoped he would deliver. When there was a big shot to be made, Mays took it. When Archie Goodwin went out with two fouls in the first half, it was Mays who stepped up and guarded Turner.
He did such a good job against the Aggie leading scorer that Calipari left Mays on Turner most of the second half and overtime. Turner finished with 21 points, but shot barely 30 percent from the field and missed six of seven 3-point attempts.
Mays, on the other hand, needed just eight field-goal attempts to tally his 19 points, a season high. He made 4 of 6 from 3-point range and 5 of 6 at the line, only missing when UK had a secure four-point lead with a second left. He played 41 minutes and had a pair of assists and a steal.
Player of the game: Noel. Mays probably deserves this designation as well, but Noel gets the nod in an effort to spread things out. After a game in which he scored just two points on one field-goal attempt yet still was the best player on the floor at Ole Miss, Noel made it a priority to show he's got offensive game too. He had 10 points and eight rebounds by halftime en route to a career-high 19 points and a double-double with 14 rebounds. He made 7-of-10 shots from the field and added three assists and two blocks.
Turning point: Noel's bucket to open OT. Texas A&M had all the momentum after regulation. The Aggies tied it with a 10-2 run and were bubbling with confidence, but the Cats wasted no time dumping it into Noel to stem the tide. He responded with a nifty move and tough finish in traffic and UK led the rest of the way.
Key stat: 3-point shooting. When the Aggies won in Lexington, they outscored the Cats by nine points from beyond the arc in a game that was close until the final minutes. On Saturday, UK turned that on its head. UK hit 7 of 15 (46.7 percent) from 3 with Mays hitting four, Harrow two and Wiltjer one. A&M, on the other hand, shot just 2 of 12.
Unsung heroes: Kyle Wiltjer. Wiltjer's six turnovers - including the one that led to Turner's shot that sent it to overtime - stick out on his score line, but he had an otherwise solid game even though he was less of a go-to guy than in recent weeks. He scored 10 points on just four shots while grabbing five rebounds and dishing out two assists. He added three blocks, beating Noel out for the team lead in that category.
He said what? "Julius, without him, we don't win today." Calipari
"We've showed signs of getting better. The biggest thing is, when teams make runs at us, we don't have a swagger. We have none. As a matter of fact, we almost look defeated. And I'm just - that's all we've been talking about." Calipari
"There were 150 games today and 150 teams lost. We weren't one of 'em. So move on, next game." Calipari
"I just wanted him to get out there and get his wheels underneath him, and I thought he did fine. Then the second half, the way the game went, I just, like, 'Look, I'm not going to do this to you. You've been out for two weeks.' But he's fine." Calipari on Willie Cauley-Stein, who played for the first time in five games in the first half.
"He gives us a guy that's a veteran guy, even though he's not been in this league as a veteran and he's not played the minutes he's played anywhere. But he's doing it." Calipari on Mays
"No pressure. I've been around college for a while, so I've been in plenty of situations like that all throughout my career." Mays on clutch free throws
What this one means: It certainly wasn't pretty, but a loss would have been far uglier. Coming in, this game drew comparisons to Jan. 22 when UK was coming off a win over Auburn that left some wondering whether the Cats had "turned a corner." Instead, they had a woeful offensive second half and lost. With Saturday's win, UK avoided another such momentum-halting loss.
With a young team, development inevitably comes in fits and starts. The important thing is that the steps forward outnumber those that go in the other direction. UK now turns its attention to home games against South Carolina and Auburn - a pair of teams with 2-6 marks in conference play with a trip to powerhouse Florida looming on Feb. 12