Kentucky did everything it could to take hotshot Marshall Henderson away from the Ole Miss Rebels. Foul trouble took Nerlens Noel away from the Wildcats. And in the frantic final minutes at the Tad Pad in Oxford Tuesday night, it was Noel who returned just in time for the Cats to pull off the upset of 16th-ranked Mississippi, 87-74.
Noel didn’t scratch from the field, but it didn’t matter. The 7-foot freshman set a new UK record with 12 blocked shots, including three after he was whistled for his fourth foul.
That came 7:32 to play, and it was as though someone had dropped the green flag at Daytona for Ole Miss. The Rebels hit the gas, ripping off a 16-0 streak, chopping Kentucky’s comfy 73-56 advantage to a nail-biting 73-72.
Noel had long since returned by the time it was a one-point game, because the Rebels can count to four and they couldn’t wait to see Noel whistled for number five. He gave ground at first, but inside the four-minute mark, Noel went back to the intimidating style of play that had made the area around the rim a veritable wasteland for the home team all night.
Ryan Harrow drained a clutch three to snap the long dry spell and put Kentucky back up, 76-72 with 4:06 left. That’s when Ole Miss attacked again only this time, the Noel came alive, swatting away a dunk attempt by massive Mississippi postman Murphy Holloway.
After Archie Goodwin hit a pair of free throws to make it 78-72, Ole Miss tried another dunk – but Noel blocked that one, too. And not only did it prevent two for the Rebs, it triggered a fast break that ended with Julius Mays finessing an alley oop pass to Goodwin, who just managed to coax the ball over the rim for two more of his 24 points and a 80-72 Kentucky lead.
After a pair of Henderson free throws, Kyle Wiltjer missed a wide-open try for three. At the other end, Henderson launched from about 26 feet – a shot he is fully capable of burying – but he missed everything. From there, the Cats finished the game on a 15-1 run and had their first signature victory of the season.
It couldn’t have come at a more crucial time, given Kentucky’s schedule. The only other potential opportunities for the Wildcats to improve their RPI are games at home with Missouri and Florida, and the trip to Gainesville to take on the Gators.
So if the Cats had not been able to pull off the upset Tuesday night (it still sounds strange to say Kentucky “upset” Ole Miss), the last opportunity to work its way off the bubble and into a comfortable slot in the NCAA tournament might have come down to the SEC Tournament.
And it still might. It was no secret to anyone watching the Cats build the big second-half lead that Noel’s presence was the catalyst for Kentucky’s offense. You could see the frustration building in the Rebels as they missed shots altered by the UK big man, which led to points at the other end for the Wildcats.
The moment Noel went to the bench, the Rebels’ body language changed. They attacked the rim with purpose, took the ball “up strong” and stepped up their defense at the other end.
The Wildcats changed, too, shooting tentative shots, or ill-advised ones, including the jumper Goodwin attempted just a few seconds out of a timeout, with a defender in his face.
“They started jacking balls, like it’s the easy way out,” John Calipari said. “You have to drive and get fouled.”
That happened only after the return of the big fella.
It was as though the teams took turns tossing Kryptonite back and forth at each other, in the shape of Noel’s flat-top haircut. When he was in, UK excelled. When he was out, Ole Miss couldn’t be stopped.
Except instead of Kryptonite, Noel should be cast in the role of Superman when it comes time to tell the story of UK’s must-win night in Mississippi.
“Noel was just not allowing it,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “He was making incredible blocks.”
He took just one shot, and missed it. He tried eight free throws, and clanged six of them. He did grab seven rebounds, but that’s not the number that matters the most. It was the dozen blocks and countless other altered shots that allowed Kentucky to absorb the double-barreled action from Ladarius White (22 points) and Henderson (21) from Ole Miss.
“They’re all making strides,” Calipari said of his young players. “They’re all way better than they were a month and a half ago.”
And, at least for this game, it’s happening just in time.