This was a familiar setting for Marshall Henderson, the face of Ole Miss basketball, who has become a national storyline over the last week with his on-the-court theatrics and penchant for scoring points in bunches.
And the script was set.
No. 16 Ole Miss trailed tradition-rich Kentucky, 80-74. The Rebels had fought back from a 15-point deficit, even pulling to within one. But the Wildcats had extended the lead again. It was his time now. A 3-point shot was needed. He’d have to get Ole Miss close.
A sellout crowd inside Tad Smith Coliseum eagerly awaited the flight of the ball, for another Henderson bucket that would lead to another Ole Miss comeback in a season already filled with come-from-behind wins.
He missed off left iron, and Kentucky sealed the Rebels’ first conference loss of the year with a 7-0 run. The Wildcats coasted to an 87-74 win.
“The way everybody’s guarding Marshall, it’s no secret they’re going to switch and extend on all that screening action,” Ole Miss head coach Andy Kennedy said. “You have to play behind it. He wasn’t very efficient.”
Henderson finished the game 5 of 19 from the floor, including 2 of 11 from 3. He was 9 of 12 from the free throw line, bringing his final tally to 21 points. He also grabbed five rebounds.
Student section shows support for Henderson
USA TODAY images
Henderson was put on a national stage on Tuesday. ESPN carried the game, and Ole Miss (17-3, 6-1 SEC) capitalized on the celebrity of its rising star by handing out posters with Henderson’s likeness to the student section, including a life-sized cutout of Henderson with movable arms.
This was the environment Henderson signed up for and another statement game for the Rebels in their search for their first NCAA tournament berth since 2002. But it wasn’t to be. Not on this night.
“I was pleased,” Kentucky head coach John Calipari said of his team’s defense against Henderson. “He turned a couple corners, he made a couple. And if you watch, he didn’t make them on the first time.
“He’s a terrific player, an exciting player. To be honest with you, I’ve watched the tape and I’ve smiled watching him play. Enjoy it. Andy’s letting him play like Andy played. If you get it, shoot it. Andy’s done an unbelievable job with this team. We played one of our better games. This is nothing with Ole Miss. We played well.”
Henderson took a back seat to Kentucky forward Nerlens Noel, who despite taking just one shot from the field and missing six of his eight free throws, set a school record with 12 blocked shots.
Kentucky (14-6, 5-2 SEC) has won five of its last seven games.
“He was the difference in the game; I think we would all agree with that,” Kennedy said. “He has an incredible defensive presence, which we knew prior to tonight. Nerlens would not allow the ball to go to the basket.”
“Just unreal to me,” Ole Miss forward Murphy Holloway said of Noel. “Best shot-blocker I’ve played against. He changed the game. He doesn’t have to score points. He can change the whole game.”
Kentucky ran away from Ole Miss in the second half, scoring 30 points in the first 7:30. Kentucky guard Kyle Wiltjer, who had 26 points to lead all scorers, hit two early 3s, setting the tone for a lopsided, 50-36 frame.
Wiltjer finished 10 of 19 from the field and 5 of 12 from 3.
“I just tried to be aggressive. They played my shot pretty tightly, so I was able to drive a little bit,” Wiltjer said. “Also, my teammates found me the ball. We did a really good job with transition. It was a good team win.”
Ole Miss shot 33 percent from the floor in the loss, compared to 50 percent for Kentucky. The Rebels did outrebound Kentucky, 52-45, and grabbed 26 offensive rebounds.
Holloway had 10 points and eight rebounds. He became Ole Miss’ all-time leading rebounder, passing Walter Actwood’s record with his 946th rebound in the second half. He’s the only player in the SEC averaging a double-double.
However, Noel all but silenced the 6-foot-7 senior. Noel entered the game leading the SEC in blocked shots with 4.4 per game. He nearly tripled those numbers on Tuesday, made more impressive by his playing with four fouls most of the second half.
“He’s the best shot-blocker I ever played against,” Holloway said of the flat-topped Noel. “Just look at his stats. With Noel down there, I think they’re an NCAA team. It’s tough to score down there. He’s so long, man. He’s a great player.”
Ole Miss returns to action Saturday at No. 4 Florida at 6 p.m. CST.
“It’s going to be hard to bounce back down there,” Holloway said. “The pain I feel right now with losing, knowing that we won so many in a row, it hurts too bad to just lay down and let one turn into two and two into three.”