ATLANTA -- Kentucky freshman Brandon Knight missed all six of his 3-point attempts in his first SEC tournament game on Friday.
Wildcats forward Terrence Jones, another freshman All-American, missed two 3-pointers and was 3-for-11 from the floor.
“Brandon didn’t have one of his better floor games, and Terrence didn’t play very well throughout the game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “But they should have been anxious. They’re 19 years old.”
Unlike last year’s Kentucky team, which was led by freshman All-Americans John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, the Wildcats might not need their rookies to play great every night to advance.
Even with Knight and Jones combining to shoot only 8-for-26 from the floor, the Wildcats survived with a 75-66 victory over Ole Miss in the SEC tourney quarterfinals at the Georgia Dome.
The Wildcats will play Alabama in Saturday’s semifinals.
“We’re figuring it out,” Calipari said. “We are. It’s hard. We’re starting three freshmen and three inexperienced guys, who didn’t play much last year. So it’s a new team that’s just learning to play together. It’s not just me teaching them.”
The last two weeks showed the 'Cats are starting to come together. After struggling on the road throughout the SEC season, Kentucky won at Tennessee 64-58 in its March 6 regular-season finale, and then won another close game in Atlanta.
“I kept telling them late in the game, ‘I’m really happy this is a close game because we’re going to be in some other ones,’” Calipari said. “We need this. I want to see which men step up and make plays. We’ve got to all defend and we’ve got to chase down these rebounds, because you know they’re going to take tough shots. If they make a couple of tough shots, I don’t care, just play.”
Kentucky controlled the game from the start and led wire-to-wire, but the Rebels trimmed UK’s lead to 68-66 on Chris Warren’s 3-pointer with 1:46 to play.
That’s when Knight showed he might be a guy that can carry the Wildcats on his back during March. Knight, from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., scored UK’s final seven points, including a big jumper over Warren to make it 70-66 with 1:12 left.
“I’ve got to make sure, no matter what I’m doing, just to keep running the team,” Knight said. “Even though my shot’s not falling, I [have to] make sure that my main purpose for this team is running this team, making sure we were getting our sets and stuff like that.”
Knight finished with 17 points on 5-for-15 shooting with six assists and four turnovers. He also grabbed three critical rebounds in the final minute and was fouled each time.
“Those rebounds down the stretch were critical, and he chased them down to help us win,” Calipari said. “He didn’t play one of his better floor games. I know he’s a better player than he played today, but did what he had to do to help us win.”
A chippy, tight game nearly turned into an ugly incident in the tunnel of the Georgia Dome after the teams left the floor. Ole Miss forward Reginald Buckner and Kentucky guard DeAndre Liggins exchanged words, and witnesses told ESPN.com that Buckner threw a punch before he was pulled away by teammates.
“I said something like, ‘Y’all are going home,’” Liggins said. “He was mad, I guess. He tried to come after me. I just stepped back and he came after me.”
SEC officials spoke to officials from both schools, but there will likely be no disciplinary action against players from either school.
Before the start of Friday night’s SEC quarterfinals game between Florida and Tennessee, the teams used separate tunnels to the floor.
“That’s just part of what I do,” Liggins said. “I know how to react and how not to react. He was frustrated. I guess he was frustrated they lost.”