John Calipari had seen enough.
Forced to bench his stellar big man, Nerlens Noel, at the 9:52 mark in the second half of Kentucky’s road test at Mississippi, Calipari saw the complexion of the game change within a span of 112 seconds on the clock.
When Noel was forced to the sideline with his fourth personal foul, the Wildcats led 16th-ranked Ole Miss, 73-56. It was UK’s biggest lead of the night, and it stayed that way. The Rebels saw to that.
The moment Noel left, they attacked. Reginald Buckner threw down a dunk. And then the Mississippi offense, finally flowing smoothly minus the presence of Noel, led to an open look and an easy jumper for LaDarius White.
That’s when Calipari gambled. He re-inserted Noel, but it didn’t work – at least, not right away.
Trying to avoid disqualification, Noel shied away from the UM shooters, and they went to work on the Wildcats, knocking down shot after shot, whittling the UK lead to 73-69.
That’s when Noel rose up, literally, and became himself again. He had blocked eight shots already and with 5:28 remaining, made it nine by rejecting a strong layup attempt by Ole Miss post man Murphy Holloway.
It only stanched the bleeding. At the other end, Jared Polson made a brilliant drive, but his layup attempt dipped in and out. The Rebs got the rebound, found White open (again) from behind the arc and he drained a triple, making it a one-point game, 73-72. But that was as close as Mississippi would get.
Nerlens Noel saw to that.
Ryan Harrow ended the Rebs’ 16-0 scoring run with a three-pointer that made it 76-72. Then came another Noel block, this time rejecting a dunk attempt by Holloway. The crowd screamed for a foul, but instead it led to a pair of free throws by Archie Goodwin. It was 78-72 Cats.
Buckner tried to rally his team and the crowd with another throwdown at 3:53. Noel batted it away.
With 2:51 left, Ole Miss went to the same well and, once again, Noel swatted away another dunk attempt by Holloway. Kentucky rebounded and Goodwin cashed in at the other end with a layup – 80-74 UK.
By the time Noel registered his next blocked shot (#11 on the night), the Cats were in command, up 82-74 with 1:28 remaining. The reigning (and surely future) SEC Freshman of the Week batted down a layup attempt by Jarvis Summers, leading to two more free throws by Goodwin and a 10-point lead.
After the Cats stretched the lead back out to 12, Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy emptied his bench, but that didn’t stop Noel. Summers approached again, trying a jump shot with eight seconds left.
That was a school-record 12 for Noel, who rang up five of those blocks in the last 5:28, all the while nursing four personal fouls.
His next chance to block somebody’s shot comes Saturday, when the Wildcats visit Texas A&M, which hasn’t been the same since upsetting Kentucky in Rupp Arena behind 40 points from Elston Turner.