LEXINGTON, Ky. – The first double-double of Alex Poythress’ career at Kentucky also produced what may have been another first for the freshman forward from Tennessee.
“That's the first time he smiled all year,” UK coach John Calipari said. “As he walked off the court, he smiled.”
Prodded for more productivity all season long, Poythress delivered an effort that drew terms like “proud” and “ecstatic” from his coach, scoring 20 points and grabbing 12 rebounds to help the Wildcats hold off upset-minded LSU 75-70 on Saturday at Rupp Arena.
Most importantly, Poythress made all the clutch plays down the stretch, grabbing two rebounds, recording a steal and hitting five of six free throws to help Kentucky (13-6, 4-2 SEC) hold on for a tougher-than-expected victory over the Tigers (10-7, 1-5).
“I was just trying to be more assertive in the game and trying to make plays for my teammates,” Poythress said. “I was just trying to make the tough plays, going after the tough rebounds and stuff like that.”
It marked the first time Poythress topped the 20-point mark since doing it four times in a row in November against Duke, Lafayette, Morehead State and LIU-Brooklyn. He went 6-for-9 from the floor, 8-for-10 at the line and had only one turnover in 30 minutes of action.
“Phenomenal,” said UK freshman center Nerlens Noel, who added 10 points, eight rebounds and six blocked shots. “He came out these last couple of days in practice. He has just been picking it up a lot and getting more vocal. I thought that the key to his success tonight was the previous practices getting vocal and having a high energy level.”
“It’s hard for us to lose when he plays like that,” added UK freshman guard Archie Goodwin, who had 15 points in a nice bounce-back effort himself from Tuesday’s loss at Alabama. “Coach Cal has been really hard on him about playing better. It’s not that he has not been playing good; it’s just a difference when he uses effort, then he has a really good game like this.”
With 2:01 left in the first half, Kentucky appeared to be in no need of late heroics against LSU. The Wildcats led by as many 15 and took an 42-31 lead into the locker room.
But, as they have done many times this season, the Cats experienced a letdown in the early stages of the second half. LSU whittled the lead to 54-49 on a dunk by Johnny O’Bryant with 12:45 to play.
The UK advantage went back to 11 after a rebound and two free throws by Poythress at the 8:01 mark, but an unusual flagrant foul call against the Wildcats’ Julius Mays moments later gave the Tigers a four-point trip on free throws by Malik Morgan and a layup by Shane Hammink. Moments later, a 3-pointer by native Kentuckian Anthony Hickey made it 66-61 with 4:22 remaining.
Another trey by Hickey cut the deficit to 70-68 with 1:01 to go. Mays hit one of two free throws for UK to extendt he lead to three, but O’Bryant recorded a putback with three seconds left to extend the drama.
Kyle Wiltjer’s two free throws with 3.1 seconds left put the Cats up 73-70, and Calipari elected to foul rather than allow LSU to attempt a game-tying 3-pointer. Hickey missed the front end of the bonus situation, and Poythress pulled down the rebound. He hit two free throws on the other end to seal the victory and left to a standing ovation from the crowd of 24,248.
“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 harder, 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, and 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 so ecstatic for Alex.”
• Kentucky leads the all-time series 83-24, including 41-5 in Lexington.
• O'Bryant led LSU with 21 points and 12 rebounds. Hickey added 15 for the Tigers.
• UK shot 52 percent from the field. The Wildcats are 7-0 this season when shooting 50 percent or better.
• Kentucky won the battle of the boards 39-26, the third consecutive game they’ve held a double-digit rebounding margin.
• The Wildcats return to action Tuesday at Ole Miss in a 9 p.m. ET tipoff on ESPN.