After hearing Kentucky's Tubby Smith lament his team's defense while stumbling out of the blocks in Southeastern Conference play, the Ole Miss coach knew his Rebels were in for a long night Tuesday at Rupp Arena.
He likely never imagined the extent, though. After 12 minutes of action, his Rebels had managed to put only four points on the board. Final score in what was expected to be a grind-it-out, down-to the wire affair: Kentucky 87, Ole Miss 64.
"I told our guys they were going to come out and defend because a lot of their offensive problems have come as a result of their defensive problems," Barnes said. "So I knew coach Smith would be on them pretty hard, and it would be tough to score tonight.
"Coach Smith and his basketball team did a great job. They were very well-prepared for us tonight."
After racing to a 35-11 lead, No. 12 Kentucky (11-4, 2-2 SEC) was never seriously challenged. Ole Miss (13-4, 2-2) pulled within 11 on four occasions early in the second half, but could never slice the margin to single digits.
The Rebels entered the game leading the SEC in 3-point shooting and free throw shooting, but made only three of 18 from long range and missed 14 of their 35 free throw attempts. Overall, the Cats held them to 33 percent (20 of 60) shooting from the field, blocked 10 shots and forced 18 turnovers.
"This is the kind of defense we have to play to be successful in this league," Smith said. "...I think being a better defensive team gives us the mindset that we're tougher and more aggressive."
"Once we start to play defense like that game in and game out, that's the kind of team we're capable of being," said junior center Marquis Estill, who had two blocked shots to go along with his 15-point effort. "We all know that's the key, that's the way coach Smith wants us to play."
His teammate in the post, fellow junior Jules Camara, had five blocked shots and contested several others that were not scored as rejections due to never leaving the shooter's hand.
"I'm understanding more my role to help out teammates and challenge every shot I can," Camara said. "Coach Smith says that's the main thing he wants from me, and everything else will come. That's what I'm trying to do."
Kentucky's intensity level appeared to fluster Ole Miss in the early going. The Rebels' senior point guard, Jason Harrison, picked up an intentional foul on the offensive end of the floor after elbowing the Cliff Hawkins in the head. The Cats' sophomore point guard had been harassing him all over the floor with tight defense. That marked Harrison's second foul in the first four minutes of play, and he sat for most of the remainder of the half.
"I think they were frustrated," Smith said. "You could tell there with (Jason)."
Justin Reed, the Rebels' leading scorer at 15.1 per game, also picked up two early fouls and played only 20 minutes in the game. The 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward was held to 11 points and failed to grab a rebound.
After racing to a 24-point lead, Smith experimented with different lineup combinations. At one point late in the first half, he had freshman guards Adam Chiles, Rashaad Carruth and Josh Carrier on the floor with sophomore forward Erik Daniels and freshman forward Chuck Hayes. That move proved to be ineffective as Ole Miss held the Cats to one basket over the final 4:29 of the half in cutting the lead to 37-22.
A Reed putback cut the deficit to 47-36 with 13:14 left in the game, but the Rebels could draw no closer. Kentucky put the game away with a 14-1 run highlighted by five points each from Tayshaun Prince and Gerald Fitch.
"Our kids gave a valiant effort to make it a game, but unfortunately, that was too strong of a basketball team tonight," said Barnes, whose team went without a basket for six minutes during the decisive run by UK.
Kentucky shot 53 percent (30 of 57) from the field and held a 44-26 advantage with points in the paint.
Prince led the Cats with 19 points on 7-for-12 shooting from the field and 4-of-9 shooting from long range. Estill's 15 was next, and Fitch added 13 points and 11 rebounds for his second double-double of the season and the third of his career.
"For the second straight game, Gerald Fitch set the tone for us," Smith said. "When he's going well and getting after it, the other guys pick it up and go harder."
"I like it," Fitch said of his reputation a tone-setter. "I want to be the defensive leader for this team. If I can set the tone that way, we usually play pretty well."
Kentucky also got strong play from Hawkins, who had nine points and six assists, and Chuck Hayes, who added eight points, four rebounds, two assists and two blocked shots in only 14 minutes of action.
"We've got to find more minutes for that kid," Smith said of Hayes.