By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — Kentucky might have reverted a bit for 30 minutes here Wednesday night as coach John Calipari fretted, but the Cats came alive to pull away for a 96-78 win over Mississippi.
Kentucky had five players in double figures — the fourth straight game for that — led by Kevin Knox with 22 points on 7-for-17 shooting from the field and 6-for-8 at the foul line.
Kentucky had a 67-57 lead before a 7-0 Ole Miss run in 45 seconds — helped by a foolish technical foul against UK’s Wenyen Gabriel — cut the lead to 67-64 with 10:14 to play. However, after that UK started to build the lead again and eventually pulled away for a comfortable win.
“They really turned up the pressure. We just didn’t make the plays we needed and couldn’t make the plays late,” Ole Miss interim coach Tony Madlock said.
Ole Miss did its best to make it a physical game early when there was three technical fouls and one player ejection on Ole Miss in less than four minutes along with a technical on UK’s Nick Richards.
“We just got caught up in the moment. We have good kids on this team. We will learn from this,” Madlock said.
Calipari said his players maintained their poise.
“I have lovers, not fighters,” the UK coach said before adding he was a “fighter” himself.
Calipari learned about his team a few weeks ago when he decided to go with a better scoring lineup more. Kentucky has had its three best scoring games in SEC play the last three games capped by a season-high against Ole Miss Wednesday night.
“It’s nice that we made shots. That’s what is happening because we are passing the ball. The last couple of games we are willing passers,” Calipari said. “I think we are scoring 12 to 15 more a game. Maybe 16 or 17 more than we had been scoring.
“I know when we are getting better. We got better against Auburn. We had to go win a game. But I never lost any faith in this team. You are looking a team full of guys all playing well.”
The only disappointment was that Ole Miss played harder at times.
“We did not revert back but it was not the kind of intensity and passion we had been playing with,” Calipari said. “Ole Miss out hustled us until the last 15 minutes when we got after it. Their kids didn’t give up. They fought.”
Quade Green had 18 points on 7-for-12 shooting along with four assists.
Calipari said moving him off the ball has made him better and made UK better.
“He’s a killer that makes baskets. A scorer away from the ball,” Calipari said.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had 17 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds. He was 11-for-13 from the foul line. Gabriel had 15 points and six rebounds while P.J. Washington had 10 points and five boards.
Calipari said he counted it as a double-figure scoring game for Hamidou Diallo, who had nine points but no rebounds and no assists.
Jarred Vanderbilt had five points — he was 2-for-4 from the field — with 11 rebounds but Calipari said his effort and efficiency was not as good as it had been in recent games.
Still, UK won to set up a showdown at Florida Saturday. Both teams are 10-7 in SEC play and the winner will be the No. 3 seed in the SEC Tournament.
However, if Kentucky loses and Arkansas wins at Missouri Saturday, UK drops to a five seed and will have to play on Thursday in the SEC Tournament rather than getting a bye into the quarterfinals. If both UK and Arkansas lose Saturday, UK would be the No. 4 seed and get the double bye.
“It was a win we had to have,” Calipari said. “This was like the biggest game of the year for us. We had to win this game. If I had approached it that way (with the players), they would have peed themselves.”