Much like his oft-compared predecessor, Nerlens Noel dominated a game Tuesday night without putting much of a dent in the scoring column.
In a performance reminiscent of Anthony Davis’ national championship MVP effort, Kentucky’s freshman center scored only two points and did not make a shot from the field but wreaked havoc defensively with a school-record 12 blocked shots in the Wildcats’ 87-74 win Tuesday over No. 16 Ole Miss.
Noel, who picked up his fourth foul with more than eight minutes remaining at Tad Smith Coliseum, blocked five shots in the final five and a half minutes of action after the Rebels had shaved a 17-point deficit to one. Two rejections came on back-to-back trips that were followed by Kentucky scores. The Wildcats never relinquished the lead.
“He was good,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said flatly. “He was good.”
"He was the difference in the game," Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy said. "I think we can all agree with that. An incredible defensive presence."
Noel topped the old school record for blocked shots shared previously by Andre Riddick, who rejected nine against LSU on March 14, 1993, and Sam Bowie, who swatted away nine against Vanderbilt on Feb. 21, 1981. He also moved ahead of the school-record single-season block pace that Davis was on last season, racking up his 95th rejection through 20 games. Davis had 93 at that point.
In last year's NCAA championship win over Kansas, Davis made only one field goal and scored just six points but grabbed 16 rebounds and blocked six shots to earn MVP honors against the Jayhawks.
Kentucky quieted Ole Miss' brash scoring machine that is Marshall Henderson to give the Rebels their first SEC loss. OMSpirit.com >>
There was much less at stake on this night, although Kentucky (14-6, 5-2 SEC) was in desperate need of a "signature" win to enhance its season resume with an eye on the tournament. Noel embraced the challenge and was unfazed by foul trouble that would have likely doomed other players.
“I just tried to play smart,” said the 6-foot-10 center from Massachusetts. “I didn’t want to give them any easy baskets. They kept trying to jump into my body to create contact, but I made sure to keep the right angle and not foul ... They were some big boys down there. It was really physical.”
It wasn’t the only clutch performance for the Wildcats. Sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer delivered a career-high 26 points and freshman guard Archie Goodwin added 24 as UK notched its first victory over a Top 25 opponent this season.
In a game billed as one of the biggest in program history, Ole Miss was seeking to stay tied with Florida for the SEC lead. The Rebels shot just 33 percent (28 of 85) in falling to 17-3 on the season and 6-1 in league play.
Ole Miss standout Marshall Henderson, a junior college transfer guard who entered the game leading the SEC in scoring, posted 21 points, but struggled royally from the field. He made just five of 19 attempts and went 2-for-11 from behind the 3-point arc.
Ladarius White tried to pick up the slack for the Rebels with a team-high 22 points, but it wasn’t enough to overcome Kentucky’s balanced effort. The Wildcats, who shot 50 percent (28 of 56) from the field to help overcome shaky free throw shooting earlier in the game, also got 15 points from freshman forward Alex Poythress and 13 points from sophomore point guard Ryan Harrow.
“Down the stretch, Ryan making the free throws, Archie making the free throws, Alex coming up with big balls and all that stuff ... it was good,” Calipari said.
Harrow and Goodwin combined to make nine of 10 free throws in the final 3:50 as Kentucky closed with a 14-2 run. Goodwin finished 12 of 14 at the line.
Kentucky, which had eight turnovers at the half, committed only one over the final 20 minutes of play.
"We're getting better as a team," Calipari said. "That's a good win."
• Kentucky picked up its 100th victory over Ole Miss in the all-time series. The Wildcats lead the series 100-13, but had lost their last two games in Oxford.
• UK won its first game of the season when trailing at halftime. The Cats trailed 38-37 at the break, but opened the second half by hitting 10 of their first 13 shots to go on a 22-12 run.
• Kentucky returns to action Saturday at Texas A&M. Tip is set for 6 p.m. ET on ESPN. the Cats will be looking to avenge an 83-71 loss to the Aggies on Jan. 12 at Rupp Arena.