The possession was by no means pretty, but the smiles were.
Ryan Harrow had just gotten swatted, Kyle Wiltjer passed up on an open 3 and Alex Poythress found himself stuck under the basket with little room to operate.
After missing the initial shot underneath, Poythress somehow got his hand back up and poked the ball in for a bucket. The shot – as lucky as it was – gave Kentucky a 55-36 lead, all but burying Marshall for good in an 82-54 rout of Marshall in Kentucky’s final game before the Christmas break and next week’s opponent, archrival Louisville.
It was after the play, as Poythress walked to midcourt and Marshall called timeout, which was the most promising sign for Kentucky.
After weeks of struggles, early morning runs and exhausting two-a-day practices, the smiles were back. As Nerlens Noel slapped Poythress on the chest and Kyle Wiltjer high-fived him, Poythress beamed back.
“Did you see some emotion out there?” John Calipari said. “Wasn’t it great when Nerlens (Noel) stole the ball, they all huddled. You’re like, geez, I haven’t see that all year. We’re starting to get into each other now versus ourselves, and it’s nice to see.”
Suddenly playing the best ball of his career, Ryan Harrow didn’t let up against Marshall, scoring a career-high 23 points with four assists, four rebounds and three steals. Harrow is averaging 14.3 points over his last three games, and Coach Cal said he’s playing as good as any point guard in the country right now.
Coach Cal has been on Poythress for his body language, and he joked last week that it was the first time Poythress had smiled since the season started.
On Saturday, he was caught smiling a few of times.
“I did because I had to,” Poythress said, smiling at the joke he was making. “No, I’m just kidding. I was smiling. I was happy. We were playing a good game. Being with my teammates, you know, I’m always smiling.”
There were plenty of reasons to smile Saturday.
Against a bigger, stronger Marshall team, Kentucky played with more fire than it has in weeks, and UK got strong performances from a number of players, including Harrow, Noel and Poythress. Noel posted his first double-double with 11 points and 10 rebounds, Poythress posted nine points and nine rebounds, and Archie Goodwin scored 18 despite a 4-for-17 shooting night.
“Oh, we got better,” Calipari said. “Whew! A couple guys had lapses, and those lapses will kill us in our league, but the reality of it is we got way better.”
Harrow was the most impressive on Saturday, posting a career-high 23 points, four assists and four rebounds. He’s averaging 14.3 points over the last three games.
Emotionally, after missing two weeks earlier in the season, he seems to have regained his confidence and composure. Calipari said in both his postgame news conference and radio show that it comes down to Harrow playing hard and with emotion.
“How can you show emotion when the other guy is playing harder than you?” Calipari said on his radio show. “You can’t really show emotion. You show emotion when you step out there and make a dive for a teammate, or a charge or a dunk, ‘Yeeeeeaaah!’ When you’re cool, you can’t do it. A cool dude doesn’t do that.”
Calipari said when Harrow is playing the right way, with aggressiveness, communicating and “that look in his eye, he’s as good as anybody in the country.”
As for the other guy, the “cool guy” Harrow?
“The cool guy sucks,” Harrow said Coach Cal told him. “I don’t want to be a sucky player, so I’ve got to play aggressively.”
Harrow said he never realized that he gave off a laidback demeanor when he played because that’s how he played in high school. To hear Calipari make the comparison and call him one of the best point guards in the country right now was flattering for Harrow, but he said it doesn’t change his mind set.
“It’s good, but I have to believe in myself,” Harrow said. “He can’t give me self-esteem. It’s self-esteem. I have to build it myself.”
Harrow carried Kentucky early in the first half when Marshall’s size gave UK problems. Harrow slithered his way past bigger defenders for layups and floaters as he scored 11 of UK’s first 23 points.
The Cats carried a 33-24 lead into halftime, but another slow second-half start – a disturbing trend for this team – got Marshall back into the game, 33-31.
“Again, we got cool,” Calipari said. “We had a couple guys that just want to kind of go out, look around like there’s not a game here. It’s an AAU game.”
It was Harrow once again who came to the rescue, scoring four straight points to start the game-changing run. UK went on a 25-6 run from that point forward, improving to 8-3 on the season.
Kentucky held Marshall to 29.5 percent from the floor, the second-lowest shooting percentage by an opponent this season.
“I’m pleased,” Coach Cal said, a sudden reversal in tone from the last couple of weeks. “We’re a long way from home, but it shows that this team, and I keep saying it, this team has more upside than any team in the country. We’re going to have games where we don’t shoot it well. Doesn’t matter. If you’re defending, if you’re tough, you’re rough, create shots for each other, you’re going to be fine.”
The Kentucky players will have the next three days to go home and spend time with their families for Christmas before returning Dec. 26 for an evening practice. With the break ahead and Louisville next up on the schedule, Saturday’s game was an important boost for a team that Calipari said needed to make bigger strides after two weeks with Camp Cal.
Based on the number of smiles Saturday, those strides were made.
“Believe me when I tell you, I’m not worried about anybody we’re playing,” Coach Cal said. “I’m worried about my team. If we go in and Louisville is way better than us, we move on to the next game. We’re going to go in, we’re going to play our game. We’ve gotten better. Is that good enough? I don’t know.”