OXFORD, Miss. — Among Kentucky’s problems this season, starting games without focus was high on the list. It happened several times, and starting slowly on the road in Southeastern Conference play cost the Wildcats a few games.
That was not the case Tuesday.
No. 18 Kentucky played one of its most dominant games of the season through the first 30 minutes, shooting well and crashing the boards against an overmatched Ole Miss. The Wildcats then held off the pesky Rebels’ late comeback bid to post an 84-70 win at Tad Smith Coliseum.
Kentucky bounced back from a 69-59 loss to No. 2 Florida on Saturday, a game in which the Wildcats played well but simply couldn’t overcome the Gators’ dominant second-half offense. Florida scored on its final 13 possessions.
“Well, the one thing I told them: In the last eight years or so, our teams have bounced back after a loss by an average of 17 points,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “So you lose a game, you come back and you beat somebody’s brains in. And I wanted to know how we would do today. And they responded.”
Kentucky forward Julius Randle posted game highs with 25 points and 13 rebounds. Guard Aaron Harrison added 17 points for the Wildcats, guard James Young scored 16, and guard Andrew Harrison had 10.
The Wildcats (20-6, 10-3 SEC) built a second-half lead as large as 22 points, but Ole Miss wasn’t quite ready to give up in the final minutes. With 2:26 to play, guard Jarvis Summers grabbed an offensive rebound, sprinted the floor and finished a layup through contact.
He completed the three-point play, and Ole Miss was within seven points.
With less than two minutes to play, the Rebels climbed within 76-70, but they did not score again.
Calipari attributed Ole Miss’ comeback to his team’s youth, citing as he has all season that his team is the youngest in the country.
Rebels coach Andy Kennedy had a slightly different explanation.
“Kentucky boredom, maybe,” he said.
Ole Miss’ Marshall Henderson finished with 18 points on 5-of-17 shooting. The free-wheeling guard kept the Rebels (16-10, 7-6) in the game late, but the deficit was too much to overcome. Summers scored 22 points, and Ole Miss forward Anthony Perez added 21.
The Rebels suffered their first home loss in SEC play.
Kentucky missed three of its first 10 shots, and Ole Miss led 11-10 — its largest advantage, too — before the Wildcats answered with 16 unanswered points.
The Wildcats’ shots began falling from all over the court. Kentucky made 10 of its next 11 shots, including five dunks and three 3-pointers.
If it weren’t for four straight makes by the Rebels near the end of that stretch, Kentucky’s lead would have been that much bigger. Still, the Wildcats led 42-25 at halftime.
“It was fun. That’s probably how every team wants to play every game,” Aaron Harrison said. “It’s not going to happen. You always have bad games or just don’t have the energy there some games and stuff like that. So that’s what we’re working on: just having energy. I think that whole big run just came from energy and enthusiasm.”
The Wildcats relied on their size advantage in an 80-64 win over Ole Miss in Lexington on Feb. 4, and they went right back into the paint Tuesday. Seven of Kentucky’s 16 made field goals in the first half were dunks, four on lob passes.
Randle had a double-double in the first half, getting 10 points and 10 rebounds. The freshman now has 14 double-doubles this season.
Henderson scored six points on consecutive possessions early in the first half — a three-point play and a deep 3-pointer — but was held scoreless the rest of the half.
Coming out at the opening tip with a bang was one thing Kentucky focused on all week in practice, Randle said, and even if the focus waned in the game’s final minutes, the initial flash was bright enough to produce a win.
“We had two days where all we talked about, Coach said it, was like chemistry, energy,” Randle said. “We saw in the film, the last 10 minutes of the (Florida) game. We played really well
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