Kentucky Coach John Calipari needed to go back only 10 days to put sobering perspective on what appeared to be a we've-arrived statement victory at Mississippi.
"Look, our thing is way out in front of us still," he said after UK beat the No. 16 Rebels 87-74 Tuesday. "We came from Auburn and did what we did. And then what did we do the next game?"
Kentucky routed Auburn 75-53 on Jan 19. Then three nights later, Kentucky wilted in the second half in losing 59-55 at Alabama.
That recent history seemed to temper Calipari's enthusiasm for immediate talk of the victory bolstering Kentucky's case for an NCAA Tournament bid or — who knows? — the Cats as contender. Instead, he challenged the players to handle this success and build upon it.
"Two guys didn't show up for the game (at Alabama)," he said. "They might (as well) not have gotten on the bus.
"So we have a long ways to go."
The victory at Ole Miss featured the same kind of uneven play that has been typical for UK this season.
After a foul-filled first half that saw the two teams combined for 26 fouls, Kentucky blitzed Ole Miss early in the second half. UK made 14 of its first 20 shots in outscoring the Rebels 35-18 in the first 10 minutes.
Then Ole Miss outscored Kentucky 16-0 to make it either team's game in the final four minutes.
"When they make that run, you can't settle for all jumpers," Calipari said. "You have to go in and get fouled, and you've got to make plays for your teammates."
Kyle Wiltjer, who led UK with a career-high 26 points, took pride in how Kentucky teetered, but did not topple over down the stretch.
"We got a little rattled there," he said. "But we regrouped in that timeout."
Kentucky called timeout with 4:22 left. Ole Miss had just finished narrowing a 73-56 UK lead to 73-72.
"I'm proud of the guys," Wiltjer said. "It's a huge step for us in that direction."
Alex Poythress, who contributed 15 points and seven rebounds, suggested the late-game drama showed a long-sought intangible.
"Let's just tighten up," he said of the message of the time out huddle. "We just wanted to get stops and score on the offensive end. We have trust in all our teammates now."
Before the game, Calipari spoke of a physical and mental challenge. Ole Miss had been 11-0 at home this season and possessed what Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings called a "vibe." The Rebels' belief in winning had to be overcome.
"I don't have any problem at all with effort tonight," Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy said. "I thought it was there. Our execution failed us."
Kentucky's defense stifled Ole Miss. Except for 7-for-10 shooting during its 16-0 run, the Rebels made only 21 of 75 shots (28 percent). UK frustrated Marshall Henderson, the Southeastern Conference's leading scorer. He made only five of 19 shots in scoring a fitful 21 points.
"I'm sure Cal can live with that," Kennedy said.
The Ole Miss coach also noted how his point guard, Jarvis Summers, also made only five of 19 shots.
"That's not going to get you much," he said of his backcourt making 10 of 38 shots. "... You can't shoot 32 percent in your own building and expect to beat Kentucky. We know that."
Forward Murphy Holloway, whose eight rebounds made him the career leader at Ole Miss, declared Kentucky an NCAA Tournament team.
But Calipari probably wanted that considered a momentary compliment rather than a final declaration. The UK coach lamented how Ryan Harrow and Poythress hung their heads after missing free throws and failing to get a loose ball, respectively. The players must not let adversity affect their play.
"You're killing us," Calipari said he told the players. "You're zapping us."
But after Kentucky spoiled the Ole Miss party (a sellout crowd, a "white out" and bubbly goodwill produced by a 6-0 SEC record), Calipari spoke of what his team did right rather than what the Rebels did wrong.
"We had it going," he said. "We had one our better performances."
Kentucky at Texas A&M
When: 6 p.m. Saturday (ESPN)
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com