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Patterson, Meeks lead UK to win

TAMPA, Fla. — With chants of “Go Big Blue” reverberating through a less than full arena, Kentucky pulled off an important win in the Southeastern Conference tournament.

Three more and an impressive streak of consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament will remain alive.

“You have to be confident in that perspective, but we’re just taking it one game at a time,” SEC scoring leader Jodie Meeks said after a 25-point performance helped the Wildcats beat Mississippi 71-58 on Thursday.

“The only thing we worried about today was Ole Miss. We took care of business, and out next opponent is LSU,” Meeks added. “It’s all we’re worried about.”

The opening-round victory, which stopped a four-game losing streak, sends the Wildcats (20-12) into Friday’s quarterfinals against SEC regular-season champion LSU (25-6), which at No. 20 is the league’s only ranked team.

“It was a great win for us,” Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said. “We’ve been reeling for a while.”

Patrick Patterson had 15 points and 14 rebounds, and the Wildcats kept alive their hopes of extending their streak of consecutive appearances in the NCAA tournament to 18.

“It felt like it was the first game of the season pretty much. … We felt that there was no pressure on us anymore. The only thing we’ve got to do is come out and play the basketball we know how to play and know that we can play,” Patterson said.

“We wanted to be tough, we wanted to be strong give it our all because it could possibly be our last game.”

Mississippi (16-15) was outscored 35-20 in the second half, when Meeks had 15 points and Kentucky shot 54 percent from the field (14 of 26) and played stifling defense that forced the flustered Rebels into 11 turnovers after the break.

Terrico White led Mississippi with 21 points, but only had six after halftime. David Huertas came off the bench to score 15 after not starting because of a bone bruise in his left foot.

“If we can come out with the right approach to start the second half, we can typically be in the game ‘til the end,” Mississippi coach Andy Kennedy said. “I thought we had a couple of key mistakes early, which allowed Kentucky to pull away.”

After losing four straight games to close the regular season, Kentucky likely needs to win its 26th conference tournament title this weekend to avoid missing the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.

Mississippi, which beat the Wildcats 85-80 at home on Jan. 27, has never beaten Kentucky twice in the same season. The Rebels were hoping a win or two in the conference tourney would enhance their chances of receiving a spot in the NIT.

Meeks made 9 of 15 shots and was 6-for-7 from the foul line after struggling against Mississippi in the earlier meeting. Patterson was dominant inside, and the Wildcats also got increased production out of its supporting cast.

Perry Stevenson had 13 points and eight rebounds, and Darius Miller scored 12 off the bench and had two of Kentucky’s 10 blocked shots.

“Patrick Patterson was a man amongst boys inside with his ability to dominate on both ends,” Kennedy said.

“Kentucky played extremely well. They played really hard. And again, for us, our margin of error is such that when we turn the ball over as readily as we did and don’t capitalize on our opportunities, it tends to lead to a long night.”

Mississippi led 38-36 at the half, however, an inability to take care of the basketball and keep White involved in the offense eventually took its toll. The SEC freshman of the year finished 7-for-13 after making five of his first seven shots and helping the Rebels answer every time Kentucky threatened to take control early.

But beyond Huertas, Mississippi’s leading scorer with an 18.2 average, White didn’t get help offensively from the rest of his teammates none of whom had more than six points.

The Rebels shot 32 percent from the field in the second half (7 of 22) and 43.8 percent (21 of 48) for the game.

“I think it’s the same Kentucky we played before,” Ole Miss guard Zach Graham said. “I just think our turnovers and their rebounding the ball really were keys and factored in them winning.”