By LARRY VAUGHT
LEXINGTON — For weeks Kentucky coach John Calipari has been telling anyone who would listen — and even those who didn’t want to hear it — that sophomore Alex Poythress was playing the best he has at Kentucky.
Even if his numbers were not startling in games, Calipari praised his effort, intensity, conditioning, toughness and just about anything else you could imagine.
Well, Poythress made Calipari look like a genius here Tuesday night with his best performance since the start of his freshman campaign when he had four straight games of 20 or more points. He had 12 points (including seven straight), three rebounds and a block in just over six minutes of the second half to start a 21-7 run and put uK in control of a 68-51 win over Texas A&M.
He finished with a season-high 16 points (4-for-7 field goals, 8-for-9 free throws), five rebounds and two blocks in 25 minutes. He is now averaging 10.6 points per game in five Southeastern Conference games.
“He has been doing great in practice and it just carried over to games,” freshman Dakari Johnson, who had six points and seven rebounds in extended playing time because of the ongoing slump by Willie Cauley-Stein (one point, one rebound), said.
Poythress seemed to lose his confidence at times last season. That’s not the case now.
“I am real confident,” he said. “Right now I am working hard and just trying to bring energy off the bench and help the team win. I am just working hard in practice to make plays and then trying to do the same thing in games.”
Two sequences defined the night for Poythress. First, he blocked a shot, sprinted the court, got the ball, got fouled and scored. He made the free throw, too. A short bit later he got the ball outside the lane and seemed to fly through the air to throw down a dunk that had teammate Julius Randle screaming and UK fans going berserk. It was that good — and that powerful — and the beast-like performance Calipari had sensed was coming from Poythress.
“That was a good stretch for me and the team,” Poythress said. “We kind of stretched the lead out then and we played great defense at that same time.”
He said he really couldn’t describe the dunk.
“I was just running down and trying to get the ball to the rim,” Poythress said.
However, he did notice the way teammates reacted not only to that dunk, but also to his three-point play.
“I did notice on the way back to the bench after the three-point play,” Poythress said. “It’s good to do something everyone can enjoy.”
Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy saw Poythress, who is from Clarksville, Tenn., play “a bunch” when he was coaching at Murray State and said then he liked his character and talent.
“He was dominant physically. I am not surprised. He is a really good player,” Kennedy said. “He’s one of their more upper class guys, and he played like it. I thought him and Randle were just physical, much more so than we were.”
Calipari emphasized again how “proud” he was of Poythress, a player he often had to criticize last season for his uninspired play.
“I am really proud of Alex and what he has been able to do in practice and now you all are starting to see it,” Calipari said. “He made plays that were like, ‘How did he make that play’ and that’s how we got a little gap. A lot of it was just him.
“What you are seeing is what I am seeing in practice. He is just dominating. One play he tried to throw the lob (to a teammate) when I wish he had taken it because there was just him and one guy. He can do something with the ball with just one guy. But he was good.”
He’s becoming consistently good and setting the tone physically. Twice he ripped rebounds away from opponents just like he did with that sensational rebound late in the overtime loss at Arkansas. He didn’t do that last year when he often played tentative instead of the aggressive way he did in high school that made him one of the nation’s top recruits.
“Mentally, he thinks he’s going to kill you, so he will. Last year that is not how he was thinking and he was not in shape to do it,” Calipari said.
Calipari often talks about players “owning” their performance — a phrase he’s aimed at Cauley-Stein numerous times during his horrific three-game slump that landed him on the bench to start the second half.
Poythress obviously has embraced that challenged from his coach.
“It means you put in extra work … good things will happen to good people,” Poythress said. “You get what you give. If you don’t work hard, bad things will happen. If you do work hard, good things will happen.”
Just like they have been for Poythress in recent weeks.