TAMPA — Kentucky's Jodie Meeks and Darius Miller strolled onto the stage for their postgame news conference cracking jokes and wearing wide smiles. They looked exactly like you'd expect carefree college ballplayers to look.
But, lately, this scene has been an unfamiliar site for the Wildcats.
Kentucky's 71-58 win over Mississippi in the first round of the SEC tournament Thursday provided some much-needed relief for a program that — according to coach Billy Gillispie — has "been reeling."
The Wildcats (20-12) advance to meet West top seed LSU this afternoon at the St. Pete Times Forum, setting up a rematch with a team that dealt Kentucky one of its four straight losses to end the regular season. All told, Kentucky lost eight of 11 down the stretch.
Thursday, it faced a two-point deficit after a tightly contested first half, but the Wildcats leaned on a ferocious defense, hustle plays and Meeks' 15 second-half points to pull away.
Whereas Mississippi was getting its share of loose balls and protecting the ball in the first half, Kentucky turned up its pressure on guard Terrico White and the Rebels, forcing them into 11 second-half turnovers. During one stretch beginning with 15:52 left, they committed turnovers on three straight possessions. Meanwhile, the Wildcats crashed the boards and hauled in 13 total offensive rebounds to the Rebels' seven.
"We refer to effort areas every game, and they dominated in those areas," Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said.
But Kentucky did something more obvious in the second half: make shots. The Rebels shot 31.8 percent in the second half, not nearly enough to keep up with Kentucky's sizzling 53.8 percent conversion rate.
It was all so refreshing.
"We've had a couple of leads this year, and we didn't finish the game out right," Gillispie said.
For the game, Meeks was 9-of-15. Forward Patrick Patterson finished with 15 points and a game-high 14 rebounds. White led Mississippi with 21 points.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.