Kentucky Basketball: Wildcats Strengthen Tourney Resume with Win over Ole Miss

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Kentucky Basketball: Wildcats Strengthen Tourney Resume with Win over Ole Miss
Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Wiltjer (33) led Kentucky in scoring with 26 points in their win over Ole Miss.

Entering the Ole Miss game, the Kentucky Wildcats were in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament. Despite winning on the road versus a No. 16 Ole Miss team, the Wildcats could still be in jeopardy of missing the cut. However, with the win, Kentucky’s NCAA Tournament resume looks slightly better.

Prior to the game, Kentucky had a relatively weak NCAA Tournament resume. They entered the game unranked and with an unimpressive 13-6 overall record. They also had not beaten a Top 25 team or an RPI Top 50 team this season.

Ole Miss entered the game with a 17-2 overall record and was undefeated in SEC play.

The game was a back-and-forth battle early on, but on their home court, Ole Miss controlled much of the first half. Both teams struggled with fouls in the first half, with a total of 27 fouls being called on both teams. Despite the foul trouble, Ole Miss entered the locker room with a halftime lead, 38-37.

Led by freshman Alex Poythress and sophomore Kyle Wiltjer, Kentucky opened the second half by taking control of the game  Poythress, who was in foul trouble in the first half, scored 12 early second-half points. Wiltjer continued his strong offensive performance in the first half by also scoring nine points early in the second half, helping to give Kentucky a 73-56 lead with 10 minutes remaining in the game.

However, in true Kentucky fashion this season, the young Wildcats seemed to relax and allowed Ole Miss to recover and chip away at the lead. Ole Miss reeled off a 16-0 run to cut the lead to a single point with less than five minutes remaining in the game. However, Kentucky showed tremendous poise down the stretch and finished the game with a 14-2 run to claim the victory 87-74.

Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports
Nerlens Noel set a school record with 12 blocked shots versus Ole Miss.

Kentucky was led in scoring by Kyle Wiltjer, who finished with a career-high 26 points. Archie Goodwin seemed to snap out of his slump and also finished with 24 points. Alex Poythress also continued his strong play, finishing with 15 points and 7 rebounds.

Nerlens Noel continued to be the story for Kentucky on the defensive end. Despite having four fouls for a large portion of the second half, Noel set a school record with 12 blocked shots. Noel has blocked a total of 94 shots this season (4.7 per game). In the team’s last six games, Noel has an astounding 45 blocked shots (7.5 per game).

The win over Ole Miss is Kentucky's most significant win of the season.

The win was Kentucky’s first of the season versus a ranked opponent and moves Kentucky to third in the SEC Conference standings with a 5-2 conference record.

More importantly, the win may signify that this young Kentucky team is beginning to grow and mature. Despite struggling in the first half, Kentucky was able to play with the energy necessary to dominate the game early in the second. Also, after allowing Ole Miss back into the game late in the second half, Kentucky was able to quiet the hostile Ole Miss crowd and close the game strong.

Kentucky will be hoping to build on this performance as they continue to move towards March. They have three games remaining versus ranked teams, two games versus No. 4 Florida and one game versus No. 17 Missouri.

However, the most important game for the Wildcats at this point is their next one.

Kentucky plays on the road versus Texas A&M on Saturday. Texas A&M defeated Kentucky earlier in the season at Rupp Arena, 83-71.

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