Ole Miss kept coming, defiantly challenging the rim and Nerlens Noel's superiority in protecting it. Even the best of gate keepers couldn't possibly keep everything from slipping by his post, right?
Nerlens Noel leads the nation with 95 blocked shots through 20 games (File Photo)
Noel turned back nearly everything the Rebels threw at him, including five attacks of the rim in the closing four minutes with Kentucky's freshman forward saddled with four fouls. When the raging Ole Miss fans inside the 'Tad Pad' finally had nothing left to give, Noel had returned 12 shots to sender, shattering UK's single-game mark previously set at nine by Andre Riddick and Sam Bowie. Even the great Anthony Davis topped out at eight in a single game.
“It was just unreal to me,” Ole Miss forward Murphy Holloway said. “He’s the best shot blocker to ever play the game. He changed the game. He doesn’t have to score points. He was changing the whole game. He’s the best shot blocker I’ve ever played against.”
Better than Davis, who broke the NCAA freshman record for blocks in a season with 186 a year ago?
“Look at the stats,” Holloway said. “Twelve. He had 12 blocks tonight? Yeah, to me, I just think he is better.”
Holloway would know. It was the Rebels' star senior who was turned away on what he thought was a sure dunk when he left his feet with four minutes left and Kentucky clinging to a 76-72 lead. Instead, Noel sprang off his feet as if on a pogo stick, rising above the rim just in time to stone Holloway cold.
On the next possession Noel victimized Reginald Buckner, the man with 281 career blocked shots of his own, swatting away his shot in virtually the same spot he swatted Holloway. As Kentucky began adding to its lead in those closing minutes the Cats' 6-foot-11 freshman added Jarvis Summers to his hit list, twice turning away the Rebels' guard.
“He was the difference in the game,” Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. “We all would agree with that. He is an incredible defensive presence. Our guys found a way to fight back in the game. The way everybody is guarding Marshall (Henderson), it’s no secret that they’re going to switch and defend on all of the screening action. Nerlens (Noel) would not allow the ball to go in the basket.”
When Noel arrived at Kentucky he was touted by talent evaluators on the prep and AAU circuits as a more prolific shot blocker than Davis, who was named Defensive Player of the Year last season. It seemed unlikely at best, impossible at worst that Noel could be as dominant in that area as the freakishly long Davis.
Yet through 20 games played Noel has registered 95 blocks, two more than Davis at the same juncture. Noel's 49 blocks in seven SEC games almost boggles the mind, which led Kennedy to wonder aloud before the game whether Noel would do exactly what he ended up doing.
“Incredible, incredible talent at the basket,” Kennedy said. “Davis was probably a little bigger – I don’t know this, but I think he’s a little bigger – but I’m not sure even he was the presence Noel is at the basket defensively. Completely changes the game.”
After Tuesday night, the Rebels are certainly believers.