Kentucky Coach John Calipari cautioned fans not to expect the three-game winning streak to usher in a period of never-ending nirvana.
“If you think there’s no chance we’ll revert, you’re crazy,” he said Tuesday. “You’re crazy.”
The reality check came Wednesday night. Kentucky struggled to beat Ole Miss 96-76 in a game that surely asked more questions than it answered. For instance: who knew there were so many different kinds of technical fouls? The game had five.
“They didn’t revert back,” Calipari said afterward. “But we didn’t play with the kind of intensity and p;assion we had been playing with. I thought Ole Miss out-hustled us (and) beat us to 50/50 balls until the last 15 minutes. Then I felt we got after it a little bit.”
Although playing a team tied for last place in the Southeastern Conference, the supposedly momentum-riding Cats found themselves in a one-possession game heading into the final 10 minutes.
Hustle helped steady UK. With the Cats ahead 67-64, Jarred Vanderbilt – who else? – kept an offensive rebound alive. He somehow re-directed it to PJ Washington for a dunk.
That started a 18-5 breakout that gave Kentucky an 85-69 lead to nurse through the final six-plus minutes.
Kentucky improved to 21-9 overall and 10-7 in the SEC. The latter moved UK into a third-place tie with Florida and Arkansas.
Kevin Knox led UK with 22 points. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander flirted with a triple double, scoring 17 points, getting credit for 10 assists and grabbing seven rebounds. Quade Green (18), Wenyen Gabriel (15) and Washington (10) also scored double-digit points.
Ole Miss, which had won once since Jan. 23 and was coming off a one-for-23 three-point shooting performance against Tennessee last weekend, fell into a last-place tie with Vanderbilt at 5-12.
Terence Davis led Ole Miss with 24 points.
It took about an hour to play the first half. This was definitely not because anyone demanded a pause in order to admire the loose-bordering-on-unraveling action.
The game was marred from the start in the form of three technical fouls and two instances of the referees going to the sideline monitor inside the first six minutes. At that point, the game was on pace for 20 technical fouls.
“It was real chippy,” Shai Gilgeous-Alexander said. “We knew they were going to play aggressively, and it could get a little out of hand. They played like they have nothing to lose. They were going to play a little aggressive and wild. We kept our composure.”
When asked about how he kept the Cats from brawling, Calipari quipped, “I got lovers. I don’t have fighters.”
When a reporter played along by suggested UK players got the idea of making love rather than war from their coach, Calipari said, I’m a fighter, not a lover. You guys know me. You hurt one of mine, I kill two of yours.”
When the half ended three minutes after 8 p.m. EST, Kentucky led 50-42. UK’s third-highest scoring first half of the season (behind 54 points against Monmouth and 52 against UIC) got lost in the debris.
Ole Miss senior forward Marcanvis Hymon got the disruption started by picking up a technical foul while jockeying for rebound position on the game’s first basket. That came 73 seconds after tip off.
At the 16:36 mark, referees had to separate players after an Ole Miss player got sent flying into the basket standard. The referees assigned a technical foul on Nick Richards, but replays clearly showed an Ole Miss player bumped Richards into the Rebel who went into the standard. Booing ensued after each of the two times fans saw the replay.
Hymon picked up his second technical – and the automatic ejection – at this point.
Then with 14:23 left, the referees started toward the well-worn path to the sideline monitor. This time they stopped en route and assessed a technical on Ole Miss senior Justas Furmanavicius.
At this point, about 30 minutes had been needed to play less than six minutes of basketball.
Thereafter, the teams settled into what more closely resembled basketball.
Ole Miss actually had one more basket (17-16) in the first half, but enjoyed a 16-3 advantage in made free throws (and 19-5 in attempts).
The farcical first half turned serious early in the second half. Ole Miss made five of its first nine shots, including a pair of three-pointers. That reduced Kentucky’s lead to 58-54 at the first television timeout.
The Rebels got as close as 59-57 on a three-pointer with 14:38 left. At that point, Ole Miss had made six of its first 10 shots (and all three of the three-point attempts) in the second half.
Knox eased the unease with a driving basket. Then Jarred Vanderbilt fed PJ Washington for a dunk and tipped in a miss. That put Kentucky ahead 65-57.
Kentucky opened up its first double-digit lead – 67-57 – with 11:17 left.
The game’s fifth and final technical foul -- this time on UK’s Wenyen Gabriel – helped Ole Miss close within 67-64 a minute later.
Then Vanderbilt kept the offensive rebound alive, Washington dunked and Kentucky pulled away.
No. 23 Kentucky at Florida
Noon Saturday (CBS-27)