OXFORD, Miss. — Ole Miss brought out the actor Morgan Freeman, the Fox News anchor Shepard Smith and the popular football coach Hugh Freeze for a big night at Tad Smith Coliseum on Tuesday night.
Kentucky brought Kyle Wiltjer.
Ole Miss brought the talk of the nation, the outrageous shot-maker Marshall Henderson.
Kentucky brought the phenomenal shot-blocker Nerlens Noel.
Ole Miss brought a No. 16 ranking and the hopes of a look-at-us win over a college basketball blue blood.
Kentucky brought, well, the best version of itself.
On Monday, that's what UK Coach John Calipari said he was still looking for from his young and often puzzling team. He said Ole Miss played as the best version of itself, while his own squad, so he half-joked, often appeared to be the "least version" of itself.
And yet, for much of the 40 minutes, especially the first 10 minutes of the second half, the Cats played one of their best, most competitive stretches of the season on the way to an impressive 87-74 victory over the Rebels.
It was easily UK's best win, handing Ole Miss its first SEC loss after six conference wins.
Noel was amazing, blocking a dozen shots, including at least four down the stretch when the Kentucky center was saddled with four fouls.
"He would not allow the ball to go into the basket," Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy said.
Wiltjer was on fire, scoring a career-high 26 points, making 10 of 19 shots, some on Kevin McHale-type moves around the basket, while also nailing five of 12 three-pointers.
Even after the Cats built a jaw-dropping 17-point lead, only to see the host Rebels storm back and cut the lead all the way down to 73-72, Kentucky regained its composure and offensive rhythm and outscored Ole Miss 14-2 over the game's final 4:07.
"We regrouped," said Wiltjer.
Truth be told, the Cats played as a group, coming as close to the "buying in" and "surrender yourself" attitude Calipari has been preaching as we've seen all season. The Cats played as if every player was needed, which was in fact the case.
Because of first-half foul trouble, Jarrod Polson produced a sizable contribution the first 20 minutes. Even Jon Hood came in and gave some good minutes off the bench.
Then to start the second half, after playing all of five minutes the first half because of foul trouble, Alex Poythress got the Cats going with a couple of quick buckets. Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin both played well at the guard spots.
In fact, the first half of the second half, as UK turned a 38-37 halftime deficit into a 73-56 lead, was probably the best Calipari's club has played against quality competition all season long.
"We tried to play slower than we've played," said the coach. "And we scored more points."
Kentucky executed. Ole Miss came into the contest forcing more than 17 turnovers a game. The Cats committed one turnover the entire second half.
UK barely shot 50 percent from the foul line for most of the night. Yet over the final 3:50, the victorious visitors were 9-for-10 on free throws, including a stretch of eight straight made.
The Kentucky defense did the job on Henderson, forcing the sharpshooter to miss 14 of his 19 shots. The Texas native, who came in leading the SEC averaging 19.2 points, made just two of 11 three-pointers.
And there was Noel, who scored just two points and yet was the best, most important player on the floor.
"He was the difference in the game," said Kennedy afterward.
Or maybe a different Kentucky, a UK that rose to the occasion, was the difference in the game.
"This was one of the better games we've played all year," said Calipari.
And the best win.
John Clay: (859) 231-3226. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @johnclayiv. Blog: johnclay.bloginky.com