On the Southeastern Conference coaches' teleconference Monday, Tennessee Coach Donnie Tyndall said league play means drama as well as exciting basketball. "Games are going to be decided by three to five possessions most nights," he said.
Tuesday night showed that mighty Kentucky is no exception.
Ole Miss, which had won at UK only once since 1927, gave the Cats plenty of competition.
In the first overtime in a series that saw its 116th game played, Kentucky survived 89-86.
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Ole Miss Coach Andy Kennedy saw the game as Exhibit A in making the case that SEC basketball is under-appreciated. For example, several ESPN analysts spoke of Kentucky going 18-0 in league play as a mere formality.
"Hopefully, it'll get people to realize ... ," Kennedy said. "I know the dialogue has started (about) how bad we are."
UK Coach John Calipari termed the game a first. Belatedly, it was a window into how the Cats react to possession-by-possession pressure.
Noting how Trey Lyles missed two potentially clinching free throws with 15.4 seconds left, Calipari said the game answered questions like, "Are they going to make free throws? Are they going to be strong?"
Two Aaron Harrison free throws gave UK the lead for good at 88-86 with 1:29 left. He led Kentucky with a season-high 26.
But UK (14-0) kept it interesting by making only one of four free throws in the final 32.7 seconds.
Ole Miss (9-5) could not capitalize. The Rebels did not score a basket in the final 3:22 of overtime.
Guards Stefan Moody and Jarvis Summers combined for 48 points. Moody led the way with 25, one shy of a career high. Summers, the active SEC leader in points (1,392), assists (415), minutes (3,260) and victories (74), also finished one point shy of a career high with 23 points.
Ole Miss had a chance to win it in regulation. But Summers missed off the back of the rim on a three-pointer over Devin Booker inside the final five seconds.
"I wish he made the freshman move his feet a little bit instead of settling," Kennedy said.
Kentucky's chance to prevent overtime was lost when the Cats made only two of six free throws in the final 2:39 of the second half.
Kentucky, which came into the game with an average margin of victory of 27.5 points, looked shaky in overtime. But the Cats caught a huge break with 4:09 left. Willie Cauley-Stein fouled Moody on a three-point attempt. But Moody stayed on the floor because of leg cramps and couldn't shoot the free throws. Gone went the SEC's most accurate three-point shooter. Moody came into the game ranked ninth nationally in free throw accuracy.
M.J. Rhett, a 68.4-percent free-throw shooter, made one of three in his first attempts from the line in the game.
"If Moody doesn't cramp up, we probably lose the game," Calipari said.
The game's first five minutes suggested that Rupp Arena would not showcase such entertaining basketball theater. Kentucky scored the game's first 12 points, zipped to an 18-5 lead and appeared ready to win easily.
Noting the hoopla surrounding Kentucky (No. 1 ranking all season and speculation about a 40-0 record), Kennedy said, "Boy, did they prove it early."
But Kentucky trailed 38-36 at halftime. The bulk of Ole Miss's 38-24 blitz came against Kentucky's second platoon and resulted in Calipari abandoning any semblance of mass substitutions.
Credit for this development largely went to Moody. The 5-10 junior guard was simply too quick for Kentucky. He scored 16 first-half points.
"Stef Moody has been our X factor," Kennedy said before referencing former Rebel Marshall Henderson as a dynamic difference-maker. "Moody is a little like Marshall Henderson. Thank god only a little room. He only needs a little room."
The game turned when Kentucky's second platoon entered at the under-16 television timeout. Ole Miss immediately went on an 8-0 run, which reduced UK's lead to 18-15 and prompted Calipari to call time with 14:30 left.
He re-inserted starters Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles and Willie Cauley-Stein. But it was a game, now.
Kentucky led by no more than six in the second half.
Two free throws by Summers put the Rebels ahead 61-59 with 8:43 left.
Kentucky took the lead for good on two Andrew Harrison free throws with 5:54 left. The Cats stayed ahead by making five of their next six free throws down the stretch.
Kentucky led 75-70 inside the final three minutes. But Ole Miss tied it on LaDarius "Snoop" White's three-pointer from the right corner with 1:34 left.
Noting how UK made more free throws (28) than Ole Miss attempted (22) and hit 11 three-pointers, Kennedy said, "You'd think the Rebels would be pounded by 25."