Poythress Pushes UK to Avoid LSU Scare
This story appears courtesy of KY Forward and is written by Jon Hale. For box score, video highlights (and unique stories from the Commonwealth): KY Forward - Your Kentucky Homepage
LSU rallied from an 11-point halftime deficit to pull within one in the final seconds Saturday, but largely thanks to the play of freshman forward Alex Poythress the Wildcats held on for a 75-70 win.
Poythress posted his first career double-double with 20 points and 12 rebounds and made two free throws with one second left on the clock to seal the win.
“Without him, we don’t win,” said UK head coach John Calipari.
The development, or lack thereof, of Poythress this season has been an ongoing saga for the young Wildcats. After a streak of four consecutive 20-point games early in the season, Poythress appeared poised to take on the scoring burden for UK, but in recent weeks Calipari has repeatedly taken issue with his effort and level of intensity.
In his first five Southeastern Conference games, Poythress averaged eight points and 6.4 rebounds. In UK’s loss to Alabama Tuesday, he fouled out after scoring six points and grabbing five rebounds in 15 minutes.
“I just tried to be more assertive in the game, just trying to make plays for my teammates and just try to help my team by making the rough rebounds, all that stuff,” Poythress said.
Poythress’ first points came with 13:15 remaining in the first half when he hit a turnaround jumper while being fouled. The play even elicited some rare emotion from the generally stoic freshman.
“The old Alex, no matter if he made the most spectacular playing in the world, his head was going down,” said freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who scored 15 points Saturday. “It just means something to us to see him have his head up because it makes our energy go a lot higher.”
While fans, his coach and teammates have implored Poythress to show more emotion throughout the season, he says there was no concentrated effort to do so Saturday.
Instead, he just got caught up in the moment of playing well.
“It’s just you play hard and it comes out,” he said.
According to Calipari the difference for Poythress Saturday was him finally buying in to the intensity they’ve been trying to instill in him with extra work in practice.
“He has basically in his mind been tortured to play harder, to compete,” Calipari said. “It’s like torture, what we’re doing to him: just making him run, making him do individuals, pushing him.”
“Playing hard according to me and playing hard according to Coach Cal is a whole different level,” Poythress said. “So, I’m just trying to make the coaches happy, trying to make the right plays and make my teammates happy too, because I’m playing for them.”
His teammates noticed the extra effort Saturday.
“I’m very happy for him because I know what Coach Cal has put him through,” Goodwin said. “It’s like sometimes you feel sorry for the things he has to do in practice because we all work hard and we know he wants it just as much as we do, but just sometimes it might not look like it.
“Just to see him come out here and play, acting like he did today, it makes everybody’s day better because we all want it so bad for him and obviously he wants it for himself as well.”
Even with Poythress’ improved performance, the Wildcats almost blew a half-time lead for the second consecutive game.
UK led by 10 with 5:55 remaining Saturday, but LSU had the ball with a chance to tie down three with 30 seconds remaining.
After Johnny O’Bryant put back a missed three to close the gap to one point with three seconds on the clock, controversy erupted on the ensuing inbounds play as Wildcat assistant coach John Robic jerked freshman forward Nerlens Noel, who had failed to realize he had been removed from the game during a timeout, off the floor as Goodwin was being handed the ball to throw in.
LSU head coach Johnny Jones thought Noel didn’t reach the bench in time, meaning UK had six men on the floor while the ball was being inbounded. After the officials huddled to discuss the call, they ruled Noel had left the floor before Goodwin was handed the ball, and sophomore forward Kyle Wiltjer was allowed to shoot two free throws that stretched the lead to three.
“They were trying to get off the floor at the time that I thought the ball was in play, but it didn’t happen,” he said. “We had ample opportunities prior to that to make some plays, so I don’t think that was a game changer there.”
For their part, Calipari and his players were sure that Noel was off in time. Noel even joked that Robic almost “ended his career” by jerking him to the bench.
Regardless of whether the correct call was made or not, the Wildcats faced another game they almost let slip through their fingers.
That shows there is plenty of work to be done, Calipari said.
“If I get this team right, we’ll be fine,” he said. “We are not right, right now. You saw it. I mean, we are still not (right). You’ve got to get out of your own self’s way. You’ve got to get out of your own self’s way, so you can bust through.”
Photo: Pothress goes for a dunk/Jon Hale