Ole Miss was out on its feet, ripe for a knockout.
Kentucky led the Rebels, 42-25 at halftime. The Wildcats were switching defenses efficiently, at times playing a zone that was surprisingly effective. The Cats were stroking the triples and throwing down the highlight reel-worthy dunks. The crowd at Tad Smith Coliseum was, well, a tad quiet.
With 10 minutes to play, the lead was 19. Ole Miss was looking for a place to fall down. One more roundhouse punch might have done it – a three-pointer, an alley oop. But then…
The Cats began to back pedal, at times, leaning into the ropes. Mississippi landed one punch. Then another, and another. Even Marshall Henderson, who’d been virtually o-fer since the opening minutes of the game in Lexington, began to find the range.
Pretty soon it was Kentucky trying to clear its head, shake out the cobwebs. Now the Rebs were landing haymakers. A 22-point lead was down to six, inside the final two minutes – a two possession game.
Fortunately for the Wildcats, Julius Randle stood tall, pouring in 25 points and grabbing 13 rebounds, ringing up his 14th double-double of the season. Vitally important to his efforts was his performance at the free throw line, where he was 13-of-14 in an area where Kentucky has been less than stellar all season. In fact, the Wildcats as a team drained 27-of-30.
That’s why UK won it, 84-70 in Oxford. But it was a TKO when it could have been a stone-cold knockout.
It was a 14-point victory that, at the end, hardly felt like a double-digit win. But it was the Wildcats’ first game back following the disappointing loss to Florida, and it WAS a Southeastern Conference road victory.
Still, John Calipari’s team had a chance to swing from the heels and make a much more passionate statement. Instead, the UK coach at the eight-minute mark decided to have his team work clock, something that a painfully young bunch surely needs to learn. But it just wasn’t working.
Instead of attacking the rim, the Cats worked the perimeter, shaving seconds off the clock but sucking the life out of their own momentum and failing to take care of the basketball. Kentucky turned it over 19 times and the Rebs responded. They gave themselves a chance.
Fortunately, their top gun pulled the trigger at some questionable times. Henderson finished with 18 points but missed 12 of 17 shots, prompting his coach in the post-game news conference to point out the bad shots taken by “you know who.” Everybody knew.
Mississippi shot 39 percent on the night to Kentucky’s 52; the Wildcats out-rebounded the home team, 39-23. And still, the Rebels nearly came all the way back, although Kennedy attributed the comeback to “Kentucky boredom, maybe.”
As for Calipari, he used the word “terrific” after the game, to describe some of the things his guys did, just a few days after the Florida loss. That game included, according to the UK coach, some of the best basketball his young Wildcats had ever played, until the more seasoned Gators took hold of the game with about 10 minutes left.
Tuesday night in Oxford the Cats, against an inferior and yet homestanding opponent, came out fighting. "We're growing into the kind of team I want to coach,” Calipari said. “You lose, you don't point fingers, you get angry, come back and do this."
They left town with a double-digit road victory. That’s a good thing. And now they have a chance to avenge two of their road losses, with LSU and Arkansas coming to Lexington. Every victory builds the resume’, with an eye on the NCAA Selections Committee. The return match with the Gators looms in Gainesville early next month.
Prior to that, there are still copious amounts of lessons to be learned. Among them, one would think: How to land a knockout punch when you get the chance.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)