TAMPA, Fla. — Kentucky answered the question about caring if the season continues. The Cats care.
UK played with purpose and grit in beating Mississippi 71-58 Thursday in the Southeastern Conference Tournament first round.
Afterward, Coach Billy Gillispie let the players know how much he enjoyed this game.
"He said, 'That's the way to play,' " forward Perry Stevenson said. " 'If you play like that, you always have a chance to win.' "
Kentucky, which improved to 20-12 and kept alive its flickering hopes of earning an NCAA Tournament bid, took the initiative and seldom relinquished it. After the first half served as a feeling-out period, Kentucky basically dictated the terms of the Ole Miss surrender. Defense was the tool of submission as the Rebels committed 11 second-half turnovers and made just 31.8 percent of their shots.
"That was really the difference in the game," Gillispie said. "We were a little more disruptive than we have been."
Then Gillispie, by his own admission a man difficult to satisfy, acknowledged being — gasp — happy.
"I was really happy with the way we defended in the second half," he said.
By winning, Kentucky earned a shot at regular-season champion Louisiana State on Friday the 13th. Against Ole Miss, UK looked ready for all upcoming obstacles.
Patrick Patterson led the charge with 15 points and perhaps as many hustle plays. He also had 14 rebounds (his most since getting 15 against Auburn on Jan. 21), blocked three shots and made two steals.
"I thought he was a force in there," Gillispie said.
As Ole Miss tried ever more anxiously to reduce UK's second-half lead, Patterson seemed everywhere.
On one play, he threw away a pass then ran the court fast enough to block Murphy Holloway's turnaround fast-break shot at the basket.
With UK's back to the metaphorical wall, Patterson was not going to let his team lose.
"That says he's not a prima donna," Stevenson said of Patterson's hustle play. "With all the hype, he had big shoes to fill. With the hype, it was Patrick Patterson this and Patrick Patterson that. He's not that kind of guy. He just comes out and works hard and wants his team to win."
Patterson wasn't alone. UK, which was outrebounded 45-40 at Ole Miss in the regular season, won the boards 35-28. The Rebels had been outrebounded five times in SEC play. The 18 Ole Miss turnovers marked the third-highest total against a league opponent.
"I thought Kentucky was quicker to the ball," Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy said. "We refer to effort areas every game, and they dominated in those areas (and) really hurt us on the offensive glass."
Ramon Harris set the tone with his effort in defending Ole Miss point guard Terrico White.
White, SEC Freshman of the Year, led Ole Miss with 21 points. But only six came in the decisive second half as the Rebels fell to 16-15.
White gave Ole Miss a 38-36 halftime lead by scoring the final five of his 15 first-half points. In that span, he showed why he can be difficult to contain. He erased UK's 36-33 lead by hitting a three-pointer over Darius Miller with 48 seconds left. That prompted a Kentucky timeout as Gillispie appeared to speak with Miller.
After a UK miss, White drove with purpose past Miller for a layup with 3.2 seconds left to give Ole Miss the halftime lead.
"He can shoot off the dribble, he can shoot off the pass," Harris said of the challenge to defend White. "It's not easy to stop a player like him."
Harris sought to "take away his space" while not inviting drives by crowding too close. White made two of six shots, had no assists and committed two turnovers in 19 second-half minutes.
Kentucky established a double-digit lead within the first eight minutes of the second half.
Scrappy hustle contributed to a 15-5 run that gave the Cats their largest lead, 56-45, with 11:48 left.
Three times in the run UK converted steals or a tie-up into points.
When Jodie Meeks stole a pass and drove to a fast-break dunk, it gave Kentucky a 47-40 lead with 15:23 left. That prompted a chant of "Go Big Blue" from the stands and an Ole Miss timeout.
Later, Meeks stole another pass (an inbounds thrown toward midcourt because of UK's ball-hawking) and drove to a contested layup that made it 49-40. Nothing scrappy but pretty enough to extend the Kentucky lead.
"We don't want a good-looking game," Stevenson said. "So we just have to go out and make it ugly. I thought it was pretty ugly, but it worked for us."
Three more ugly victories here, and Kentucky will be sitting pretty.