LEXINGTON — Kentuckty sophomore forward Alex Poythress elevated what was looking to be just a ho-hum, cold January game against Texas A&M to what Coach John Calipari called “Holy Cow” status. With a dominating four-minute stretch in the second half late Tuesday night at Rupp Arena, Poythress sparked 14th-ranked UK to a 68-51 win over the Aggies.
To see a photo gallery from the game, click here.
The 6-foot-8 Poythress finished with 16 points and five rebounds, and his play early in the second half almost single-handedly took Kentucky out of a dogfight and into complete control.
The Wildcats, 14-4 overall and 4-1 in the Southeastern Conference, were clinging to a 37-33 lead over the Aggies (12-6, 3-2) three minutes into the second half when Poythress made his mark. He scored the next nine points for Kentucky, capping a dazzling run with a thunderous dunk that brought the fans out of their seats.
Kentucky led 46-36 at that point, and Texas A&M was done.
The Wildcats eventually stretched their lead to 21 points down the stretch.
“It felt good,” Poythress said. “It felt like we were slowing down a bit. We needed something to get us going a bit.”
“I keep saying, the Alex you’re seeing now is what I see in practice, which is like, holy cow,” Calipari said. “I mean, he’s just dominating, making free throws, making his jump shots. He made plays tonight that were like, ‘HOW did he make that play?’ That’s how we got a little gap. We got it to 11 because of him. Then we made a play or two, and it was 16, 17, but a lot of it was him.”
Poythress has been asked several times in recent weeks why he appears to be playing so much harder and with more confidence than he was during a relative passive freshman season. He offers no ready answer.
“I’m just trying to play hard,” Poythress says over and over.
But Calipari said Poythress’ mindset has changed with a year’s experience at this level, along with his physical condition.
“Mentally, Alex thinks he’s going to kill you, so he will,” Calipari said. “Last year that’s not how Alex was thinking. He wasn’t in the shape to do it.”
“He was physically dominant,” Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy said of the Alex Poythress he saw Tuesday. “I saw him a bunch coming up when I was at (coaching at) Murray State and really liked his talent and his character.”
“You get what you give,” Poythress said. “If you don’t work hard, bad things will happen. If you do work hard, good things will happen.”
Poythress wasn’t the only hero for Kentucky, of course, against a good, but young bunch of Aggies.
Freshman forward Julius Randle didn’t have an overwhelming performance, but still managed 13 points and 11 rebounds for the Wildcats. Freshman swingman James Young had 15 points and seven rebounds. Freshman point guard Andrew Harrison did not shoot well — scoring just eight points on 3 of 12 shooting — but he added eight rebounds and four assists.
“Andrew didn’t shoot the ball well, but he played well,” Calipari said.
Freshman center Dakari Johnson had another good game, with six points and seven rebounds. Johnson helped make up for the slumping Willie Cauley-Stein, who appeared a step slow, got in early foul trouble, and scored just one point in nine minutes.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with Willie, but he’ll be fine,” Calipari said of the 7-foot Cauley-Stein. “He’s backed up a little bit.”
Thank goodness, said Kennedy, who said the Wildcats had plenty of size and athleticism to control his Aggies.
“I thought Kentucky’s physical-ness, their length and just how physical they were gave us a lot of problems scoring,” Kennedy said. “It seemed like when they got to the rim, they got to the free throw line and finished, and when we got to the rim, they were blocking shots and changing shots. Their freshmen and sophomores were a lot more physical and longer, better than our freshmen and sophomores.”
“Their size and athleticism wore us down,” added Texas A&M guard Alex Caruso, who tied Davonte Fitzgerald for team scoring honors with 12 points.
The Wildcats returned to their dominant ways on the boards after a bad game in that department in Saturday’s win over Tennessee. Kentucky held a 42-24 rebounding advantage on the Aggies.
UK shot 22 of 50 from the field for 44 percent, but just 18 of 27 at the free throw line for 66.7 percent.
The Wildcats are home Saturday against Georgia. The game, televised on the SEC network, tips off at 1:30 p.m.