History will record that Kentucky’s 2013 NCAA Tournament began March 22 in Dayton, Austin or some such city. The Big Blue Nation will know it really started Jan. 29 in Oxford, Miss.
Archie Goodwin made 12-of-14 free throws to preserve UK's win at No. 16 Ole Miss.
Already saddled with six losses and owning zero quality wins, Kentucky traveled to No. 16 Ole Miss on Tuesday desperate to put some distance between itself and the NCAA bubble.
But with 4:22 remaining, and ferocious thunderstorms brewing outside Tad Smith Coliseum, the Cats’ season was on the brink. After pushing ahead 73-56, Kentucky had given up a 16-0 run and it was a one-point game.
“Here’s how you stop the bleeding,” UK coach John Calipari said. “You come down and take good shots. You draw fouls. And you drive it so you can offensive rebound. We didn’t do any of that. We took quick jumpers.
“Defensively, don’t give them anything easy,” the coach continued. “Do not foul. And do not let them offensive rebound. So what do we do? We’re fouling and giving them offensive rebounds. So we still haven’t learned a lesson.”
Young Kentucky might not have learned a lesson, but it learned something far more valuable. There is a heartbeat inside this team.
“Down the stretch with Ryan making free throws, Archie making free throws, Alex coming up with rebounds. It was all good,” Calipari said.
The result was a miraculous 14-2 counterpunch that propelled Kentucky to the 87-74 victory, saving its season if truth be told.
Ryan Harrow stopped the bleeding with a three-point basket just one possession before Kentucky risked losing its lead, and Smith Coliseum losing its roof. The shot to end the 16-0 run was Harrow’s only three-point attempt of the night.
“I was pleased with Ryan’s point guard play,” Calipari said. “He had been gone the last two weeks, but he played today.”
More incredible was how Kentucky stopped the bleeding on the defensive end. Nerlens Noel’s exit after picking up his fourth foul is was started the 16-0 momentum shift. But once quickly re-inserted by Calipari, Noel displayed nerves of steel to block four shots on his way to a school-record 11 rejections without ever drawing that disqualifying fifth personal foul.
“He was the difference in the game. We all would agree with that,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “He is an incredible defensive presence.”
But there was so much more to this victory, a coming together of young players to make a team.
Much-maligned Archie Goodwin, who made only 3-of-6 line drive free throw attempts in the loss at Alabama one week earlier, was stellar in going 12-of-14 at Ole Miss to finish with 24 points, six rebounds and four assists.
Much-anticipated Alex Poythress, who has been more Least than Beast, followed up a great game against LSU with 15 points and seven rebounds in just 20 minutes action.
Kyle Wiltjer single-handedly kept Kentucky in the ball game with 17 first-half points. He would finish with a career-best 26 points and seven rebounds.
Julius Mays is a guard, but filled a void left by Poythress’ early foul trouble and Willie Cauley-Stein’s injury by grabbing seven rebounds. He added five points and four assists.
Before leaving Lexington, Calipari issued a warning to his team.
“You’re not going to be able to go down there and compete being soft, mentally or physically, or not being a good version of yourself, preparing to play great,” Calipari said. “It doesn’t mean you play great, but you at least prepare to play great.”
Given the circumstances, Kentucky played great.