OXFORD, Miss. — After Kentucky beat Ole Miss 87-74 Tuesday night, Murphy Holloway said what others might consider but dare not say: Nerlens Noel is better than Anthony Davis.
"Just unreal to me," Holloway said after Noel blocked a school-record 12 shots. "Best shot blocker I've played against."
Was Holloway saying Noel was a better shot blocker than Davis, who led UK to the 2012 national championship and became the proud program's first National Player of the Year?
"Just look at the stats, man," Holloway said. "Twelve!
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"To me, I thought he was better."
For the record, Davis blocked four shots in UK's 77-62 victory over Ole Miss last season.
Noel broke the previous UK record of nine blocks shared by Andre Riddick (vs. LSU in 1993) and Sam Bowie (vs. Vanderbilt in 1981). The 12 blocks were also tied for the third most by a Southeastern Conference player. Shaquille O'Neal of LSU also blocked 12 against Loyola Marymount. The league record is 14 by Alabama's Roy Rogers (vs. Georgia in 1996) and Auburn's Kyle Davis (vs. Miami in 2001).
Noel's performance was reminiscent of Davis' in Kentucky's national championship game victory over Kansas. As Davis did in making one of 10 shots against the Jayhawks, Noel showed how a player can greatly impact a game without scoring much. He missed his only shot against Ole Miss and scored two points, hitting only two of eight free throws.
Yet, Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy said, "He was the difference in the game. I think we'd all agree on that. Incredible defensive presence."
As Kennedy saw it, Noel was the linchpin of Kentucky's defensive effort. The Cats neutralized Marshall Henderson, the SEC's leading scorer, by switching on screens and forcing him farther from the basket.
The counter was to attack the basket behind those extended defenders.
"We finally realized that," Kennedy said in reference to an Ole Miss second-half comeback. " ... We got the ball where we wanted it, to the guys we wanted it. Nerlens Noel was not allowing it."
Kennedy also made a wry reference to Noel to making critical blocks down the stretch despite having picked up his fourth foul with 9:52 left.
There were "three or four, uh, interesting exchanges at the rim," Kennedy said. "For him not to foul and come away with blocks that led to opportunity breaks for them, which they ended up converting on was the difference in the game."
Until this game, Kentucky's three best victories against opponents with the best current Ratings Percentage Index came against No. 64 Maryland, No. 79 Tennessee and No. 118 Vanderbilt.
To beat No. 32 Ole Miss led Kyle Wiltjer to declare "a huge step for us" toward being a solid post-season team.
Holloway called the Cats an NCAA Tournament-caliber team.
But UK Coach John Calipari cautioned against such thinking. He noted how Kentucky believed it turned a metaphorical corner at Auburn, then lost its next game at Alabama.
Wiltjer scored a career-high 26 points. He made five of 12 three-point shots.
"I just tried to be aggressive," he said. "They played my shot pretty tightly, so I was able to drive."
Once again, Alex Poythress shook off early foul trouble. He went to the bench with his second foul barely two minutes into the game.
Yet he finished with 15 points (which gave him 35 in the last two games) and seven rebounds (19 in the last two games).
Senior guard Twany Beckham underwent a "back procedure" earlier in the day and did not make the trip. He is out indefinitely, UK said.