ATLANTA -- Kentucky's first postseason game went just as John Calipari hoped -- close all the way, with his three freshman starters gaining valuable experience for greater challenges ahead.
Doron Lamb scored 19 points and fellow freshman Brandon Knight had 17 to lead Kentucky (No. 16 ESPN/USA Today, No. 15 AP) past Mississippi 75-66 in the Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinals on Friday.
"I kept telling them late in the game I was really hoping this is a close game because we're going to be in some other ones," Calipari said. "And we need this, and I want to see which men step up and make plays."
Calipari was encouraged his team found a way to overcome poor shooting by Knight, the point guard, and another freshman, Terrence Jones. Knight shot only 5 of 15 from the field, including 0 for 6 on 3-pointers. Jones went 3 of 11 and had seven points, 10 below his average.
Knight made five free throws in the final 41 seconds as Kentucky (23-8), which never trailed, held off Ole Miss. The Rebels trailed 68-66 following Chris Warren's 3-pointer with 1:45 remaining, but didn't score again.
"They should have been anxious; they're 19 years old!" Calipari said.
Warren, perhaps generously listed as 5-foot-10, had 20 points for Mississippi (20-13) but shot only 5 of 20 from the field while he was guarded by the 6-foot-3 Knight and 6-foot-6 DeAndre Liggins.
"They guarded him with size," said Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy, who said Liggins "is obviously one of the best defenders in our league."
Alabama earned a 68-66 home win over Kentucky on Jan. 18, but Calipari said the score was misleading.
"Alabama was up 20," Calipari said. "They smashed us. We're playing a team that smashed us."
But Calipari may like his team's chances in the rematch. He said the Wildcats have improved "as much as any team, maybe more than any team in the country."
"I thought our effort was certainly good enough," Kennedy said. "Our execution failed us."
Ole Miss shot only 33.9 percent from the field (20 of 59) and was outscored 42-20 in the paint.
Lamb, one of three freshman starters, helped Kentucky continue an old tradition of SEC tournament success in Atlanta and against Ole Miss. Kentucky is 15-0 in the tournament against the Rebels.
The Wildcats improved to 20-7 in tournament games in Atlanta. They've won five tournaments in "Cat-lanta," most recently in 2004.
Kentucky blue was the dominant color in the Georgia Dome crowd of 21,875, even for Friday's first game between home-state Georgia and Alabama.
"It definitely felt like a home game, especially in the beginning with all the chants," Knight said. "It gave us a home atmosphere."
Most teams' fans settle at the tournament in one corner or section. Kentucky is different. Wildcats fans claimed every section in every direction as their own as if Rupp Arena had been hauled down Interstate 75 from Lexington.
One of the biggest cheers of the opening game came when Kentucky's fans rose to greet the Wildcats' cheerleaders as they walked into the facility.
The lopsided advantage in the stands didn't make for a runaway on the court.
Kentucky appeared to be on the verge of pulling away when a basket by Liggins gave the Wildcats a 51-39 lead about 5 minutes into the second half.
"We were up 12 and the young guys thought the game was over," Calipari said. "Andy called a timeout. I don't know what he said but I'd like to know because I'd like to use it. They came roaring back."
The Rebels answered with a 9-0 run, capped by a steal and basket by Nelson to cut it to 51-48. Nelson's 3-pointer a minute later brought the Rebels within 53-51.
Kentucky recovered to lead 64-56 on a jam by Jones, but the Rebels pulled back to within 66-63 with 3:10 remaining on Reginald Buckner's basket.
Ole Miss was trying to beat Kentucky for the second time this season. Warren's 3-pointer with 2.9 seconds remaining lifted the Rebels to a 71-69 victory over then-No. 10 Kentucky on Feb. 1.
The bearded Warren struggled in the first half. His only field goal on seven tries was a 3 with 1:30 remaining.
Henry made each of his two 3-pointers for the Rebels in the half. The rest of the team went 2 for 11.
Lamb matched his season average by scoring 13 points in the first half, including two early 3-pointers.
Jones, who averages 17.1 points and an SEC-leading 9.2 rebounds, was called for his fourth foul with 10:53 remaining. He had seven points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes.