The final smile was the sweetest.
Wrapped in John Calipari’s arms, Alex Poythress soaked in his coach’s bear hug, the crowd’s applause and a relieving – if not must-have – victory at Rupp Arena on Saturday with one final grin that said it all.
“That’s the first time he smiled all year,” Coach Cal said.
It wasn’t quite the only smile of the year from Poythress, but to say it was the first isn’t a tremendous exaggeration for the “stone-faced” freshman who has often been the focal point of Kentucky’s inconsistencies and frustrations this year.
Poythress was the savior in Kentucky’s 75-70 victory, posting his first career double-double on Saturday with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Counting smiles, it may have been close to a triple-double effort, but it was undoubtedly a career high in the smile department.
“It was fun today so, you know, I had to smile,” Poythress said.
There were plenty of reasons for Poythress to smile Saturday afternoon, but maybe none more important than the significance of the win. In his long-awaited breakout performance of the year, Poythress preserved what could have been a critical loss for the Cats.
“We don’t win without him,” Calipari said.
When the Cats needed Alex Poythress the most, the light kicked on for the freshman. Perhaps saving UK from a loss it could not recover from this season, the freshman forward posted the first double-double of his career with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
Poythress scored 11 points and grabbed six rebounds in the first half to lead Kentucky to an 11-point halftime lead, and then he came up with the game-changing plays down the stretch, including the final rebound and final two free throws, to seal the victory for the Cats (13-6, 4-2 Southeastern Conference).
The freshman forward scored eight points in the final eight minutes of the game to put a stamp on his best game of the year.
“He was a big difference maker in the game today,” LSU head coach Johnny Jones said.
It’s an unlikely compliment for a player who has frustrated and sometimes infuriated Coach Cal and the UK fan base.
“I was so proud of Alex, I can’t begin to tell you,” Calipari said. “He is basically, in his mind, been tortured to play hard, to compete. In other words, it’s like torture what we’re doing to him, just making him run, making him do individuals, pushing him. For him to go out and make those free throws and come up with those balls and do the things that he did to help us win the game, (I’m happy for him).”
Poythress expressed genuine relief in the postgame when reporters informed him of the praise his coach had for him. He admitted it’s been tough dealing with criticism and going through all the attention Coach Cal has given him, but he wouldn’t go as far as to call it “torture.”
“I’m not the average person to go through it and I’m fine with that, but it is tough,” Poythres said. “It’s hard work. (Calipari’s) just trying to push me every day.”
Call the extra attention what you will, Saturday might have shown that the hard work is starting to pay off. Even with a 12-minute scoreless stretch in the second half where LSU double teamed him, it was Poythress’ most consistent effort of the season.
“I just want to see that competitive spirit in him, and that’s what he showed today,” Coach Cal said.
Poythress may have won the game for Kentucky, but assistant coach John Robic saved it.
Leading 71-70 with 3.9 seconds left and the ball, Robic appeared to yank freshman forward Nerlens Noel off the court just a split-second before the Cats were handed the ball on an in-bounds play. Had Noel been caught on the court when the officials handed the ball to UK on the baseline, Kentucky would have had six players on the court, an obvious violation.
“I didn’t see all the stuff,” Calipari said afterwards. “Everybody was saying something. I just know when that ball was handed we had five guys on court.”
The violation would have awarded LSU two free throws and a chance to win the game. Had Robic not grabbed him, it could have been a meltdown that might have sent UK’s season into a downward spiral.
“(Robic) almost ended my career right there,” Noel, laughing to illustrate a sense of relief. “It was a little miscommunication.”
The referees reviewed the play before Kyle Wiltjer shot two free throws, confirming they made the right decision in not blowing the whistle.
In a statement from Gerald Bourdeaux, SEC coordinator of men’s basketball officials, he said that “the officiating crew ruled that when the ball was handed to the player for the throw-in, five players were on the court for each team.”
Even so, LSU had one more shot to tie the game after Wiltjer made both free throws, but Calipari elected to foul Anthony Hickey with 2.0 seconds left and Kentucky up 73-70. The free throws ensured LSU couldn’t tie the game up on a last-second shot.
“I’m not one to usually (foul up three), but the way that game was playing, he would have made that 3,” Coach Cal said. “There ain’t no question he would have banked it and that 3 would have gone in, so that’s why I decided to do that.”
Hickey ended up missing the front end of the one-and-one anyway, and Poythress grabbed the game-clinching rebound and sunk the final free throws with 1.0 seconds left.
That paved the way for Poythress’ well-deserved smile and bear hug from Calipari.
“The old Alex, he could make the most spectacular play in the world and his head is going down afterwards,” said Archie Goodwin, who added 15 points and five rebounds. “It just does something to us just to see him with his head up. It makes our energy go a lot higher than what it already is.”
Perhaps it’s a sign of things to come.
“He’s getting it,” Calipari said.