That changed on Tuesday night when the young Wildcats took the experienced Rebels’ best shot and pulled away for a 13-point win before a raucous Tad Smith Coliseum.
In overcoming deficits against Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Auburn and withstanding a hard charge by Arkansas, Ole Miss was described as resilient in a 6-0 SEC start.
Even 17 points back, the Rebels cut the Kentucky lead to 1 with plenty of time on the clock, but the Wildcats got a big 3-pointer to push the lead out again.
It was the defense of freshman center Nerlens Noel more than Kentucky’s offense – even though the Wildcats shot 50 percent – that befuddled Ole Miss.
Noel set a Kentucky record with 12 blocked shots, tying for the third-most in an SEC game.
“He was unreal to me, the best shot-blocker I’ve ever played against. He ain’t got to score a point. He can change the whole game,” said Ole Miss senior forward Murphy Holloway.
Marshall Henderson had 21 points, surpassing the 20-point mark in an SEC game for the fourth time, and Jarvis Summers added 10 points.
But Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy was not pleased with the efficiency of his starting backcourt as Henderson and Summers were a combined 10 for 38 from the floor, each player with five makes in 19 attempts.
“Our guard play going 10 for 38 is not going to get you much,” Kennedy said.
That was a tribute to Noel, however.
A big part of Summers’ game is getting into the lane and finishing plays at the rim. The Wildcats successfully guarded Henderson on the 3-point line – He was just 2 for 11 there – and he improvised by driving inside.
The presence of Noel caused Henderson and Summers to twist in awkward ways and try to force shots over or around the Kentucky center.
“He was the difference in the game, an incredible defensive presence,” Kennedy said.
Holloway and Buckner were both in foul trouble and played only a combined 13 minutes in the first half.
With Kentucky forcing Henderson off the 3-point line and extending the play from the basket, the Rebels did a better job in the second half of finding Holloway inside.
There was a big gap between finding Hollowing and finding the basket. He finished 4 for 14 from the floor.
“We had the ball where we wanted it, to the guy we wanted it. Nerlens Noel was just not allowing it. He made incredible blocks,” Kennedy said.