OXFORD, Miss. — For the past week or so, Kentucky Coach John Calipari had hammered home the same theme.
Yes, his three freshmen are good. Sometimes very good.
But it's not their team.
The team belongs to the three upperclassmen.
And Tuesday night, on the road, in a hostile environment at Mississippi's Tad Smith Coliseum, here's what the UK's veterans produced:
Josh Harrellson, the senior center, had two points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes on the floor.
DeAndre Liggins, the junior guard, battled foul trouble, scored just five points and was unable to control Ole Miss's best player, Chris Warren, who scored 22.
And Darius Miller, the junior forward, scored just three points, grabbed just one rebound in 31 minutes and passed up a wide-open shot on Kentucky's next-to-last possession, with the Cats holding a one-point lead, which ended in a shot-clock violation.
Next possession: Warren drained a jumper from the left wing with 2.9 seconds left to give Mississippi a 71-69 victory and hand Cal's Cats their third SEC loss.
A bad loss.
In this one, Kentucky's freshman combo of Terrence Jones (22), Doron Lamb (20) and Brandon Knight (15) accounted for 57 of the Cats' 69 points. Throw in Eloy Vargas' put-back off a loose ball at the end of the first half, and UK's first-year players scored all but 10 of their points.
"I told 'em (afterward) we can't go on the road and expect freshmen to carry us," Calipari said. "We didn't get enough from the upperclassmen."
The freshmen scored all of Kentucky's 34 points in the second half.
"They must be my best players," said Calipari after the game when told of that stat.
But there are only three of them. It takes five to form a starting lineup, more than that to make a team that has a chance of doing anything.
Here was Cal on Monday: "If our freshmen play well, great, we'll win. If they don't play well, we've got to win anyway. ... You three, the two juniors and one senior, this is your team."
That's especially true when the team goes on the road in the conference. They've been there before. The freshmen have not. The veterans have to show the way, not combine for 11 shots and 10 points.
Calipari said afterward he was happy with the way his team fought to get back in it after being down 11, that considering the way his team had played, to come out with the victory would have been stealing one on the road.
And again, Cal said Ole Miss, like Georgia and Alabama in road games before, had wanted it more. He said the Rebels pushed UK around. That's true, too.
Still at the end, most games in a league where, as Cal said, not much separates top from bottom, execution matters.
Its final possession, Ole Miss executed. It got the shot it wanted, a screen that gave Warren a shot that a closing Jones couldn't quite block. The three-pointer rattled in.
On the possession before that, however, Kentucky's possession, the Cats did not execute. Ole Miss jammed what Calipari wanted in the middle, which opened it up for Miller in the right corner. Wide open.
Only Miller didn't take the shot. He took a couple of dribbles and passed, and the next thing you know the shot clock had the Cats in a choke-hold. Under duress, Liggins shot an air ball.
"Everybody who watched it said, 'Why wouldn't he shoot that ball?'" said Calipari when asked. "But again, it's one play in the game."
Still, it's a veteran's play. It's a play at the end of a close game. It's a play upperclassmen have to make, especially on the road. You make that play, you have an excellent chance at the win. You don't make that play, you take your chances.
Said Calipari, "Our upperclassmen have got to step up and make plays."
Tuesday night, in Mississippi, that didn't happen.
Reach John Clay at (859) 231-3226 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3226, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at Kentucky.com.