Lexington, KY (SportsNetwork.com) - Kentucky's next big test was supposed to come this weekend against a national powerhouse, not during a midweek game against an Ivy League school missing its best player.
But there were John Calipari's top-ranked Wildcats, yet to score a point after five minutes against Columbia.
"There was no fire," Calipari said.
There they were, trailing at halftime.
"There was no buzz," he said.
And there they were, after 26 minutes, still yet to hold a lead.
"There was no nothing," Calipari said.
But in the end, there was enough.
Aaron Harrison scored 14 points and Kentucky finally pulled away in the last 10 1/2 minutes on Wednesday night to avoid what would have been a crushing upset ahead of Saturday's game against No. 21 North Carolina.
The Wildcats beat the Lions 56-46 in the first meeting between the teams since the 1966 NCAA tournament.
They trailed 11-0 in the first half, 25-23 at halftime and didn't take their first lead until there was 13:18 left in the game.
Eventually, Calipari said, his team forced Columbia to take tough shots.
"As the game went on, we did it," he said. "We had four turnovers. (It was) our third game in a row where we're not making shots. I mean, literally, not making like open shots, shooting air balls, and missing them so poorly, open shots."
The 10-point win was Kentucky's smallest margin of victory this season, but it wasn't the first time the Wildcats (10-0) underperformed against a seemingly inferior foe.
They shook off a 38-33 deficit to Buffalo on Nov. 16 and beat the Bulls 71-52, then went on to rout Kansas by 32 points two days later.
Willie Cauley-Stein had 10 points and 10 rebounds against Columbia, most of it in the second half, but no other Wildcats player scored in double digits.
Andrew Harrison was 1-for-12 from the floor, highlighting Kentucky's shooting problems.
"I thought the energy was so bad," said Calipari. "We threw it ahead, got it back, and stood straight up and stopped, when there were areas to get in the lane and throw that lob we throw or go in the lane and throw him a shot that he can make. It's all based on that."
Maodo Lo scored 16 to lead Columbia (5-3), hitting several key 3-pointers in the first half.
It was Columbia's first game against a top-ranked team since losing to Indiana at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 26, 1975.
"We tried to take it like it was just another game, just one out of 28 games of the season for us," said Columbia center Cory Osetkowski. "Granted it was against Kentucky, the No. 1 team in the country, but we just came out here and tried to play exactly like we play all the time and that's what we did."
The last Lions victory over a ranked opponent technically came in 1994 after No. 14 Cal was forced to forfeit a game over an ineligible player. But Columbia hasn't beaten a ranked opponent on the scoreboard since topping No. 19 Rutgers on Dec. 2, 1976.
More recently, the Lions lost on the road to a No. 2-ranked Michigan State 63-52 on Nov. 15 last season.
Their first-ever game at Rupp Arena started with an improbable 11-0 run as the Wildcats, who had trailed for just 36 minutes all season, missed their first seven shots and the Lions made four of their first six.
Calipari subbed out his five starters 2 1/2 into the game and Aaron Harrison, after checking back in, ended the field goal drought with a layup just over five minutes into the game.
Later, a 7-0 Kentucky run was stopped by Lo's 3-pointer, which gave the Lions a 20-14 lead.
Columbia made its run against the top-ranked Wildcats despite playing without star forward Alex Rosenberg, who led the Lions in scoring last season but withdrew from school last month because of a broken foot in order to protect his fourth year of eligibility in the Ivy League.
Lo made Columbia's fifth 3-pointer of the first half from the left corner with under a minute to play.
"I think we started off believing we could win in the locker room, yesterday and the day before," said Osetkowski. "We have to come into a game like this believing we can win, and that was our mind set through the whole game even if we get down. We always believe we can come back, hit a shot here and there, get a stop. That's what basketball is."
The Lions didn't trail until Derek Willis' free throws gave Kentucky a 36-34 lead. The Wildcats didn't begin pulling away until a 6-0 run capped by Cauley- Stein's alley-oop dunk off a pass from Andrew Harrison made it 44-37 with 10 minutes left.
Kentucky's lead reached 15 after that. It ended the game shooting under 37 percent, including 2-for 17 on 3-pointers.
Kentucky continued its best start since going 19-0 to begin the 2009-10 season ... In the only other meeting between the teams, Kentucky beat Columbia in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Madison Square Garden on March 18, 1948, on the way to its first national title ... Columbia fell to 6-43 against ranked teams.