Superstar freshman Nerlens Noel swatted away 12 shots during last night's Kentucky-Ole Miss game while scoring just two points on 0-2 shooting from the field and 2-8 from the free-throw line. Noel's stat line suggests he had a classic impacted-the-game-with-his-defense performance, which he did, but it also fails to tell the whole story. Noel didn't just spend the evening casually swatting away floaters and layups hoisted up by his athletically overmatched opponents. I mean, he did plenty of that, but he also made a two surprising and difficult blocks at the game's crisis point that sealed his team's victory.
The video above is a supercut of Noel's blocks from last night. Each is impressive, but I'd like to draw your attention to two blocks in particular, which occurred late in the second half as Ole Miss was creeping back into the game. With 4:29 left in the game, Ole Miss's Ladarius White hit a three-point jumper to cut Kentucky's lead to one. Kentucky's Ryan Harrow answered with a three of his own to push Kentucky's lead back to four, but Ole Miss, playing in front of a raucous crowd and with the momentum on their side, were still well within striking distance. That's when Nerlens Noel, who was playing with four fouls at the time, did this:
That's Noel denying Ole Miss's Murphy Holloway a monstrous dunk that would have made the game 76-74 and assuredly brought the house down. Instead, Kentucky sunk two free throws at the other end to push its lead to six.
And then, on the very next possession, Noel did this to Reginald Buckner:
Game over. Ole Miss never got any closer than six points from the lead.
Neither of those blocks are the kind of plays that a big man who is one foul away from being knocked out of the game has any business making. It takes precision timing, coordination, and body control to block any shot; it takes a hell of a lot more to block a pair of dunks at the rim without committing a foul. Those plays should have ended with Holloway and Buckner popping their jerseys and getting ready to complete a pair of tide-turning, three-point plays.
Noel's performance last night was the perfect representation of a good shot blocker's highest praise: he helped win a game without ever making a field goal. Ole Miss's run hit its stride when Noel went to the bench with his fourth foul; that run stopped short when he checked back into the game. A shooter with a hot hand can lift a team onto his shoulders. A fearless big man can stop one dead in its tracks.