By Parrish Alford/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – The best SEC start in program history now has its first blemish.
Unranked Kentucky got 26 points from forward Kyle Wiltjer, and knocked off No. 16 Ole Miss 87-74 on Tuesday night.
The Tad Smith Coliseum sellout crowd included celebrities Morgan Freeman and Shepard Smith, but that didn’t help the Rebels defend Wiltjer, a 6-foot-10 sophomore forward, who was a matchup problem for Murphy Holloway or whoever else tried to guard him.
Wiltjer had 17 in the first half and finished with a career-high. He entered the game averaging 11.3 points off the bench.
The Rebels (17-3, 6-1 SEC) were led by guards LaDarius White and Marshall Henderson in the first half, and Murphy Holloway was more involved in a second-half comeback that cut a 73-56 Kentucky lead to 73-72.
But the Wildcats got a 3-pointer by Ryan Harrow out of the timeout and were not threatened again.
Kentucky shot 50 percent for the game, but that percentage was closer to 60 mid-way through the second half.
White was 6 for 10 from the floor in the first half, and Henderson did most of his scoring from the free throw line as Ole Miss led 38-37 at the break in spite of shooting just 29.5 percent.
Holloway finished with eight rebounds to become the school’s all-time leader, but the fact that it took him until roughly 6 minutes remained to get the fifth rebound needed for the record spoke to how the game was going for the Rebels.
Henderson had 16 points in the first half and finished with 21. White, coming off a season-high 17 points at Auburn Saturday night, had 22.
“We can’t shoot 33 percent in our own building and expect to beat Kentucky. We know that,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said.
The Rebels struggled to help Henderson get good looks in the second half, and it was White who knocked down a 3-pointer to make it 73-72.
“We’ve been in this situation before. We just wanted to get stops and score on the offensive end. We have trust in our teammates,” Kentucky forward Alex Poythress said.
After the Harrow shot upped the lead, the Wildcats got a blocked shot from freshman center Nerlens Noel on Holloway going to his left.
Seconds later, the Rebels were down six, Noel blocked a dunk attempt by Reggie Buckner.
Noel, averaging 6.2 blocks per game in SEC play, had 12 – a school record – of his team’s 13.
“He was the different in the game. He just would not let the ball go in the basket,” Kennedy said. “He’s playing with four fouls, and he had some incredible blocks that led to run-outs for them.”
The narrow halftime lead could have been more, but Ole Miss couldn’t guard without fouling, and that was a trend that continued early in the second half as Kentucky took a 46-40 lead.
Wiltjer had 17 in the first half and added seven more before the first timeout in the second.
It only got worse as the Wildcats (14-6, 5-2 SEC) hit from inside and out and opened up a 73-56 lead with less than 12 minutes to play.
Ole Miss erased deficits against Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Auburn in its 6-0 SEC start, but in those games never trailed by as many as it did against the Wildcats.