It was just one play, just one dunk. It only counted for two points and one field goal in the stat sheet.
But oh did Darius Miller’s dunk change the complexion of Saturday’s game against Ole Miss.
Trailing 31-29, Miller ignited a quiet UK crowd and awoke the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats out of a first-half lull with one of the dunks of the college basketball season.
Flashing in the paint, Miller received a pass from Marquis Teague at the free-throw line, bounced it once and, as if he was jumping off a trampoline, sprang into the air. Ole Miss’ Reginald Buckner challenged with hopes of denying the dunk bid, but instead he may have found himself on a poster at a nearby retail store.
“I was just trying to go up and finish strong,” Miller said. “I missed two bunnies before that and I was kind of mad at myself. Coach Cal talked to me about it so I tried to finish strong.”
The force was strong with this one.
The one-hand tomahawk slam was the beginning of a 14-4 run heading into halftime, turning a brief Ole Miss lead into another Wildcat rout. Kentucky cruised in the second half, defeating Ole Miss 75-62 in front of 24,239 fans at Rupp Arena.
Kyle Wiltjer scored 13 points and knocked down three shots from the 3-point line, but more importantly, he filled in admirably in the first half when Anthony Davis went to the bench with two fouls. His stretch late in the second half sparked UK’s halftime lead.
“A dunk like that, when the crowd gets into it, can change the whole game really,” sophomore guard Doron Lamb said.
“The whole game shifted,” sophomore forward Terrence Jones said.
There was a noticeable change in momentum and energy following the slam, which led to a flurry of 3-pointers to end the half. After throwing it down in the paint, Miller did his damage from the outside, hitting two of UK’s four 3-pointers in the final 3:20 of the first half en route to a 43-35 halftime lead.
“I like 3s,” John Calipari said. “I love dunks.”
And he’d like to see them more often from Miller, who played the type of assertive game fans yearn for on a more consistent basis. The senior guard scored 14 points on a season-high 12 shots.
“I think the dunk is one of the biggest plays I’ve seen him make,” Coach Cal conceded. “My point is, if you can do that, why don’t you do that all the time? Why isn’t that you?”
Said Miller: “Yeah, I kind of set myself up (laughing). Now when I don’t dunk Coach Cal is going to be all over me. I guess it’s kind of a lose-lose situation.”
The Rebels reeled off four straight points to start the second half, but Ole Miss would hardly threaten as Lamb cashed in from the outside (four 3-pointers) and scored a team-high 16 points and Jones recorded his first double-double (15 points, 11 rebounds) of the year.
Kentucky stretched its lead to as much as 23 in the second half despite allowing an opponent to shoot better than 43.5 percent for just the second time this year.
It was the Wildcats’ 18th straight victory and 50th consecutive at home.
“It’s the first I’ve thought of it,” Coach Cal said. “Is it 50? That’s a lot of games.”
Miller, who is the only player to have been a part of every single victory and is a Maysville, Ky., native, put a little more thought into it.
“It means a lot to me, especially in a program like this, the amount of support we get from the fans,” Miller said. “I know it means a lot to them, too. Hopefully we can finish out the season with these last two wins.”
UK, at 12-0 in the Southeastern Conference, is now four games away from achieving conference perfection for the first time since 2003, and a UK win at Mississippi State on Tuesday would assure the program a share of its 45th Southeastern Conference regular-season championship.
Kentucky hit 10 of 18 from behind the arc Saturday, including three big 3-pointers from freshman Kyle Wiltjer.
“Kyle played great today,” Calipari said. “He was outstanding. And the reason we had a lead at halftime was because of Kyle Wiltjer. In the middle of the zone he made shots, he defended well. He took a charge. He played well today.”
Wiltjer hit 5-of-6 shots overall, totaling the most points (13) he’s scored since his career-high 24 against Loyola in December. He played 19 huge minutes, picking up the slack for UK in the first half when Anthony Davis was chained to the bench with two fouls.
“I try to make my opportunity by working hard every day in practice,” Wiltjer said. “Regardless of how many minutes I get, I just want to work hard and get better as a player. I’m having a great time with this team.”
Wiltjer and Miller combined to score 18 straight points during the game-defining run late in the second half.
Struggling to hit his 3-point shot early in the year, Wiltjer is knocking them in with frequency and consistency. There’s no hesitation when he gets the ball and gets some space, which he found quite often Saturday as Ole Miss packed its defense into a zone to neutralize Anthony Davis.
“I’ve really emphasized just going out there and playing basketball and not thinking too much,” Wiltjer said. “When I’m open I just want to shoot it and not hesitate. If you hesitate you’re going to miss your shot.”
Dunks or 3-pointers, Kentucky wasn’t missing much of anything Saturday.