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January 29, 2013

Kentucky powers to road win at No. 16 Ole Miss

OXFORD, Miss. - John Calipari couldn't sit down.

The Kentucky coach was in a rush to leave town Tuesday night, in a hurry to beat bad weather to the airport, but as he met the media in the belly of Tad Smith Coliseum, his preference to remain on his feet had little to do with haste.

"I'm standing, guys…," Calipari told reporters in the press room. "The seats are soaked."

Two of his players, Kyle Wiltjer and Alex Poythress had been sitting in those news-conference chairs just before. And it's no wonder they left so much perspiration in the press room.

They'd poured even more on the court in an 87-74 win against No. 16 Ole Miss.

"We were trying to battle," said Poythress, who had 15 points and seven rebounds in a foul-troubled 20 minutes. "It was a battle from the start. We just tried to battle the whole game, and we ended up on top."

It took spectacular performances on offense (Wiltjer scored a career-high 26 points, and Archie Goodwin added 24) and on defense (Nerlens Noel blocked a school-record 12 shots and UK held Henderson to 5-of-19 shooting), but the Wildcats (14-6, 5-2 Southeastern Conference) powered their way to an important win.

It was Kentucky's first win of the season against a ranked opponent and its best win away from Rupp Arena. The Rebels (17-3, 6-1) entered the night on a nine-game winning streak and with only one loss this season in regulation.

The Tad Pad was packed with 9,232 rowdy fans. Ole Miss was primed for a win against Kentucky, SEC royalty even when unranked. Its fans hoped to see star guard Marshall Henderson put on a show.

Instead, the Cats stole it.

It didn't come easy, though it looked for a while like it might.

After a hack-heavy first half - Ole Miss was whistled for 14 fouls before halftime, Kentucky 12 - the teams settled into some offensive flow in the second, and the Cats erupted.

UK made 13 of its first 18 shots after halftime and led by as many as 17 points before the Rebels answered. Ole Miss reeled off 16 straight, woke up the crowd and forced a Kentucky timeout trailing 73-72.

"We just said, 'Come on, let's get it together. We been in this situation before. Let's tighten up, execute,'" Poythress said. "We just wanted to get stops and just score on the offensive end. We had trust in all (our) teammates."

And all of them made plays.

Wiltjer, who'd carried Kentucky to a 73-56 lead, drew more defensive attention don the stretch, so other Cats stepped up. With 4:08 to play and his team up one, Ryan Harrow drilled a three-pointer to put UK in front 76-72.

On Ole Miss' ensuing possession, Noel - playing with four fouls - blocked a dunk attempt by Murphy Holloway. It was one of five blocks Noel had down the stretch after his fourth foul.

"I thought, again, we had the ball where we wanted it to the guy we wanted," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "Nerlens Noel was just not allowing it."

Noel made "incredible blocks," Kennedy said, and those led to "opportunity breaks" for Kentucky. After Noel swatted Holloway's dunk, Archie Goodwin made two free throws at the other end, followed by another Noel block and a Goodwin bucket.

Leading 80-72, Kentucky had some breathing room.

And the wind was out of the Rebels.

"It was big for us because they made their run," Wiltjer said. "We got a little rattled there, but we regrouped in that timeout. I'm proud of the guys for stepping up, because this is a huge step for us in the right direction."

But only one step.

As proud as Calipari was, he was subdued in a brief postgame press conference.

"It's a good win," he said, but he was cautious about saying much more.

Kentucky's on the road again Saturday at Texas A&M, a team that won in Rupp Arena on Jan. 12. Calipari wants his team focused not on what it accomplished Tuesday, but what lies ahead.

"It's good," Calipari said. "But look, our thing is way out ahead of us still. Now we came from Auburn and did what we did (won by 22) and then what did we do the next game? We did (well) for 20 minutes, then went 20 minutes and two guys didn't show up for the game (in a loss at Alabama). Like, they might as well have not shown up for the bus. So we've got a ways to go."


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