TAMPA, Fla. — Perry Stevenson cracked the double-digit point barrier for the first time in eight games. Freshman Darius Miller equaled his second-highest point total against a Southeastern Conference opponent.
In beating Mississippi 71-58 in the SEC Tournament's first round on Thursday, Kentucky showed what helping its two primary scorers looked like.
Miller, who scored 12 points, called it "very important" that Jodie Meeks and Patrick Patterson do not shoulder the scoring load alone.
"They'd be extremely tired, in my opinion, at the end, if we didn't help them a little bit," Miller said. "They've been carrying us the whole year. We definitely have to step up and help them out."
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Miller credited the defensive attention paid Meeks and Patterson with creating scoring opportunities for others. As almost always, Meeks and Patterson showed why they merit the attention by combining for 16-for-30 shooting and 40 points.
"They were trying to deny Jodie the ball," Miller said. "At least two people were on Pat every time. It was just open for me to take."
Stevenson contributed 13 points, eight rebounds (the most since the first Florida game on Feb. 10) and two steals. Afterward, UK Coach Billy Gillispie called for more of the same going forward.
"That's the way he should have played all year long, but we can't worry about that," Gillispie said. "That's the way he should play every single time from this day forward."
Patterson to return?
Patterson qualified his comment from Wednesday when he said he would return to UK next season rather than enter this year's NBA Draft.
After saying he wasn't ready to leave and wanted to try again for a highly successful college season with his UK teammates, Patterson was asked how susceptible he might be to changing his mind.
"That's my mind-set right now," he said. "My mind-set is depending on how I finish out this year. I will re-evaluate everything, talk to my parents as to my mind-set. I want to finish out this year, and if I do well enough, I'll consider leaving."
When asked what factors might cause him to change his mind, Patterson said, "If we make the NCAA Tournament, how far do we go? Talk to the coaches. See the NBA Draft (projections)."
A reporter speculated that UK fans who want Patterson to return might root for a loss here so he would need next season to play in his first NCAA Tournament.
"Oh, they don't want that to happen," Patterson said with a smile. "They want me back, but I know they definitely don't want us to lose."
Although Patterson had 15 points, Gillispie noted how the big man continues to miss shots around the basket. He called for Patterson to "do a better job using ball fakes and counter moves.
"Because everybody is playing his first move. That's when his shot has been blocked most of the time."
The possibility of an NCAA Tournament bid was not the only motivation for Kentucky. The Cats also had another reason to be aroused.
They remembered getting "beat up" physically at Ole Miss earlier this season.
"We had something to prove," guard Michael Porter said. "... We felt that if we were the aggressor, a lot would change."
Gillispie reminded the Cats of getting beat around the basket at Mississippi. "He let it be known that couldn't happen again," Stevenson said.
Of the 11,071 who attended the opening session Thursday afternoon, it seemed more than half rooted for Kentucky.
"I guess this was like a home game," Stevenson said. "You could feel it in the air."
By the way, the 11,071 marked the lowest attendance for an opening session since 1997 (9,376 in The Pyramid in Memphis).
Wooden Award finalists
Meeks and Louisville's Terrence Williams were among 25 finalists named Thursday for the John R. Wooden Award as college basketball's Player of the Year. Louisiana State's Marcus Thornton and Florida's Nick Calathes were also on the list. The award will be presented April 10.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.