For weeks John Calipari has been almost begging for his team to do two things: Show more fight and have fun doing it.
Kentucky did both Tuesday night at Mississippi, and the Wildcats helped convince those who questioned whether they could make the NCAA tournament, including me, that this team might have time to regroup and blossom by March.
UK into the national rankings or into the Southeastern Conference lead. What it did do, though, was give the Cats their first win over a top-50 team this year and give them a huge dose of confidence.
Kentucky had to overcome huge foul problems — four players had two fouls in the game’s first seven minutes — in the first half and stayed in the game with gritty defense and big offensive production from Kyle Wiltjer.
In the second half, the Cats roared out to a 17-point lead at 73-56 midway of the second half and then nearly collapsed when Nerlens Noel — who now has 93 blocked shots after 20 games just as record-setting Anthony Davis did last year — picked up his fourth foul.
Ole Miss went on a 16-0 run, and it was easy to envision UK blowing the big lead as it did when it wasted a 14-point lead and lost last week at Alabama. But apparently the Cats learned their lessons in that game, because this time they did not wilt.
First, point guard Ryan Harrow hit a huge 3-pointer to end the 16-0 run. Noel got his eighth blocked shot — he had five of his record-setting 12 blocks in the final four minutes — and that led to two free throws by Archie Goodwin.
Noel blocked two more shots before Goodwin took a lob pass on a fast break from Julius Mays and scored for an 80-72 lead. That’s the same Goodwin whom Calipari defended on his website after he was criticized by fans for being too selfish.
Harrow hit two free throws to make it 82-74, Noel got another block and Goodwin made two free throws at 1:23 for an 84-74 lead. Harrow came back with two more free throws after another Noel block to make it 86-74 and complete a 13-2 run that could have turned Calipari’s young players into men.
Consider that Kentucky won even though Ole Miss took 85 shots — 29 more than the Cats. Consider that UK won despite going 10 for 20 at the foul line in the first half and missing 14 free throws in the game. Consider that UK won despite giving up 26 offensive rebounds.
Noel was sensational. He took only one shot, and missed. He was 2 for 8 at the foul line in the first half, and he got a below-normal seven rebounds. But he blocked 12 shots, including five in the last four minutes with four fouls.
However, he was not the star of stars. In this game, Kentucky won because of contributions from everyone:
— Kyle Wiltjer had a career-high 26 points and seven rebounds. He was 10-for-19 from the field and is clearly UK’s go-to guy on offense now. He also had three assists and three steals — and not one turnover in 35 minutes.
— Goodwin took only 11 shots, and had 24 points because he made six and went 12 for 14 at the foul line. He also helped play harassing defense on Ole Miss star Marshall Henderson, who missed 14 of 19 shots. He also had four assists, his high in a SEC game.
— Alex Poythress went from being a non-factor after getting two fouls in three minutes to being the player being projected by some as a potential NBA lottery pick. He finished with 15 points and seven rebounds and gave UK a huge boost to start the second half.
— Harrow had 13 points, two assists and even blocked a shot. He was shaky at times, but down the stretch he was money. He had two turnovers and went 6 for 9 at the foul line to help close out the win.
— Mays grabbed a career-high seven rebounds and had four assists to offset a 2-for-6 shooting game.
— Jarrod Polson and Jon Hood gave UK a needed 23 minutes of relief work and combined for five rebounds, two assists and no turnovers. Don’t underestimate their impact in a game in which the Cats were in such deep foul trouble.
After the game, Calipari tried to downplay the win. He told ESPN’s Shannon Spake it was “a nice win” but his team had more to do.
He’s right about more to do, but this was more than a nice win. It was a potential season-saving win. Now if Kentucky could go to Texas A&M and win Saturday, then come back home to win two games before having to go to Florida and Tennessee, the Cats could get some needed momentum.
However, Kentucky has already shown by what it did after absorbing the 16-0 potential knockout punch from Ole Miss late in the game that it is learning, getting better and does have a chance to position itself back in the NCAA tourney again.