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February 18, 2012

Miller, Wiltjer key first-half run to spark UK

No Anthony Davis. No Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

No matter for Darius Miller and Kyle Wiltjer.

With two of Kentucky's star freshmen sitting on the bench early in Kentucky's 77-62 win over Ole Miss (15-11, 5-7 Southeastern Conference), the Rebels mounted an attack on Kentucky's 49-game home winning streak. After leading by double digits for most of the first half, Kentucky (26-1, 12-0 SEC) found itself tied at 24 with Ole Miss with 7:25 to go in the first half.

Cue the Kentucky bench.

Wiltjer drained a pair of shots to keep the Wildcats afloat amidst the comeback, but UK didn't truly take off again until Miller threw down a thunderous dunk over Ole Miss' Reginald Buckner.

Miller came off the dribble straight at Buckner, a 6-foot-9 forward who's third in the conference in blocked shots. He went straight over top of Buckner, flushing the ball with one hand.

"Coach was talking to me about not finishing, so I was kind of upset with myself," Miller said. "I felt like I missed a couple bunnies that I could have made. I was just looking to finish strong. That happened."

He had struggled to that point as the Rebels cut into the Wildcat lead, but the dunk propelled Miller and his teammates forward.

"It got me excited," Miller said. "It got the team excited and we got going. After that, everybody started knocking down shots. I think it kind of woke us up a little bit. That and the way Kyle played really jump-started us."

Wiltjer scored eight points after the game was tied in the first half to keep Ole Miss at bay. He made his first four shots, knocking down an easy jumper in the paint that he said gave him confidence before he made his first two three-pointers.

When Ole Miss tied the game at 24, Wiltjer made his first three. When the Rebels tied it again at 31, he made his second, keeping the pressure on Ole Miss as the crowd fed off the momentum generated by Miller's dunk.

"You never plan when you're going to get pumped, but when the crowd is going crazy, it gets your juices flowing," Wiltjer said.
Wiltjer's chance wouldn't have come without Davis being relegated to the bench for all but eight minutes of the first half with a pair of fouls. Kidd-Gilchrist picked up his second foul after playing just 13 minutes in the first half.

"The reason we had a lead at halftime was because of the way Kyle Wiltjer, in the middle of the zone, he made shots," UK head coach John Calipari said. "He defended well. He took a charge. He played well today."

Wiltjer and Miller each scored 10 points in the first half. Miller finished with 14 points while Wiltjer had 13 on 5-6 shooting. Marquis Teague had eight assists, and Terrence Jones posted his first double-double of the season with 15 points and 11 rebounds.

Ole Miss pulled within four early in the second half, but never seriously threatened after that. Kentucky pushed the lead out to 23 points before cruising to their 50th straight win at home.

Saturday was just the chance that Wiltjer had been waiting for. He'd joined his teammates in taking extra shots before practice and focused on shooting the ball while running the court and spotting up. He also worked on his defense and angles to protect the basket.

"I like to try and make my opportunities every day by working hard in practice regardless of how many minutes I get," he said.

When the early minutes came, he was ready. As Ole Miss cut into the UK lead, Wiltjer's threes stretched the Rebel defense and pushed the Wildcats back on top.

"He made big shots that we needed in the first half to get us the lead going into halftime," said sophomore guard Doron Lamb, who led UK with 16 points. "If Kyle keeps playing like that, I don't think we can lose."

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