OXFORD, Miss. - Nerlens Noel was a hero Tuesday night against Ole Miss. His 12 blocked shots helped Kentucky hold on to what was once a 17 point lead, in an 87-74 win against the Rebels and were the most blocks by a Kentucky player in the team's 110-year history.
There's no denying he was great Tuesday at Tad Smith Coliseum.
But one Rebel went so far as to say he was historically great.
"It was unreal to me," Ole Miss's Murphy Holloway said. "He's the best shot blocker to ever play the game."
A bold statement, but not asinine, with Noel averaging 7.5 blocks per game in his last six. With Tuesday's performance, Noel took the NCAA Division I lead in blocked shots.
And despite Noel taking only taking one shot - he missed it - and scoring two points, Holloway said he was a difference-maker.
"He changed the game," Holloway said. "He doesn't have to score, he was just changing the whole game."
Noel was a game-changer Tuesday night, potentially altering the outcome of UK's season and certainly giving the Cats a much-needed quality win.
But UK coach John Calipari still needs more out of him.
With Willie Cauley-Stein still sidelined after receiving minor knee surgery - he missed his fourth straight game Tuesday - Noel doesn't have a backup at center.
And as Noel was racking up blocks, he was also picking up fouls.
"He was good," Calipari said. "He was good. But again, how did he get four fouls? I took him out. We're trying to win the game and you're trying to steal balls. Quit trying to tip balls away. But again, the freshmen, we lose focus."
Although as time was winding down, Noel keyed in on defense.
With 9:52 to play in the game, Noel picked up his second foul. He was sent to the bench, but as the Rebels were clawing back Calipari couldn't wait. Noel reentered the game just over a minute later and to the Rebels' chagrin he wouldn't exit.
Noel blocked six shots in the final 5:28.
"He was the difference in the game," Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. "I think we can all agree with that."
Half a hundred
While Noel was an ominous force on defense, Kyle Wiltjer and Archie Goodwin were lighting it up on offense.
Wiltjer scored a career-high 26 points against the Rebels, including five threes. Goodwin finished with 24.
Calipari has been raving in recent weeks about the changes Wiltjer has been making, and they showed Tuesday. Wiltjer credited his more aggressive play for his success on the court.
"They played my shot pretty tightly, so I was able to drive a little bit," Wiltjer said. "And then also, my teammates found me the ball. We did a really good job in transition and it was a great team win."
Calipari had to make a statement asking fans to be patient with Goodwin, who had been just 7-of-24 in his last two games. Patience paid on Tuesday. Goodwin finished shooting 54.5 percent from the field, but more importantly 12-of-14 from the free throw line.
His average was just 65.6 percent from the line heading into Tuesday.
"I thought Archie took good shots," Calipari said. "He had a couple that he didn't need to take, but he still - and he made free throws."
Hanging on Henderson
Ole Miss's Marshall Henderson loves attention, and heading into Tuesday's game he had a national platform.
And after dropping 16 points in the first half, it seemed that he was ready to live up to his hype.
But then the Cats clamped down. Henderson finished with 21 points on 5-of-19 shooting, his lowest field goal percentage in SEC play.
"I was pleased," Calipari said. "I was pleased. He turned a couple corners. He made a couple. If you watched, he didn't make them on the first try, they get an offensive rebound and throw it to him and he makes one."
Nine of his points were from the free-throw line.
Kennedy said Henderson wasn't very efficient.
"He's got to make some hard shots, but we've got to help him a little more" Kennedy said.
LaDarius White led the Rebels with 22 points.
A new pad?
Calipari used his postgame news conference to campaign for change at Ole Miss. Specifically, he pushed for the Rebels to replace the "Tad Pad," the oldest basketball arena in the Southeastern Conference.
"They're 17-2 (entering Tuesday's game)," Calipari said. "Would you please build the guy a new building? I mean, the locker room we're in, I'm looking for squirrels in there. You gotta be kidding me. You got all these football facilities.
"This campus is gorgeous. This campus is like none other. This is one of the nicest college campuses in the country - accept for this building! This is the only bad building on the whole campus!"