When it comes to post-game interviews, Alex Poythress is everything Richard Sherman is not: Understated, humble and shy. But like the outspoken Seattle Seahawks cornerback, the Kentucky sixth man can be a difference-maker even when the game at first doesn’t revolve around him.
It was Poythress who was the catalyst for the Wildcats in the second half of their 68-51 win over Texas A&M Tuesday night in Rupp Arena, scoring 14 of his 16 points in the second half. And it was that one bucket in the first period that gave us all a clue as to how he was going to light it up after intermission.
The Wildcats set up a play that resulted in Poythress rolling down the lane through traffic for an easy deuce. It happened early enough to make one think that the Cats would try it again and, perhaps, again until the Aggies figured out a way to stop it. That’s how easy Poythress made it look.
No such luck.
The Cats had early success with three-pointers, so they kept jacking them up. In fact, 15 of their 27 first-half shots were from beyond the arc. Only five went in, and three of those came in the first two minutes. But still, instead of attacking A&M’s undersized front line with Poythress or Julius Randle, Kentucky’s perimeter players kept bombing away over the defense, instead of cutting through it.
Cutting through was what A&M was doing at the other end of the court, getting to the rim, it seemed, whenever it wanted. That was partly because UK’s shot-blocking, rim-guarding big man, Willie Cauley-Stein, disappeared for the third game in a row. And it was partly because the Cats were playing energetic defense but too many times forgot to communicate, leaving too many Aggies with too many open lanes to the bucket.
The Kentucky defense tightened up in the second half as the offense began to lean more on Poythress, whose post-halftime repertoire included a move to the basket that began on the side of the lane and ended with a mighty, two-handed slam that brought a frost-bitten crowd to its feet.
When UK radio network analyst Mike Pratt later asked him about the play, describing it as perhaps the best of the season so far, Poythress said simply, “Aw, yeah. I was just trying to get the ball to the rim.” Did you have any idea where you were when you took off? Pratt asked. “I just jumped,” was the response.
In the media room later, he said this: “I mean, I guess I’m blessed with great athleticism.” There’s no guessing about it.
Mind you, none of this is a surprise – not the acrobatic antics on the court, or the soft-spoken reaction later. He’s shown signs of both since arriving last season.
And Poythress has had to be patient, losing his starting job to a freshman (either James Young or Aaron Harrison, depending on where he might have been in the lineup). But he has accepted his new role as Kentucky’s first man off the bench and, at times, has thrived in it, bringing energy and athleticism when the Cats have been sagging.
At times against the Aggies, it looked as though UK’s offensive plan was to dribble around the perimeter until the shot clock began to run out, and either toss up a three or throw it to Randle in traffic. Until Poythress flexed.
He worked the baseline time and again and helped the Wildcats shake off an A&M team that had won three of its first four SEC games, the only loss a puzzling setback in overtime at lowly Mississippi State. According to Poythress, what happened in Rupp Arena was a carryover from what’s been happening in the Joe Craft Center.
“We ve been going hard in practice, trying to make the most of practice time,” he said. “Trying to work hard, really.”
It’s paying off – on offense AND defense, something he says is better now thanks to experience. “You just learn how to lock down,” he said, “pay attention to defense. It’s getting easier.”
A lot of it DOES seem to be getting easier. He blocked shots, owned the baseline, flew through the air for a backboard-rattling dunk, and his opponents were powerless to stop him.
John Calipari had said earlier in the week that he was not considering any lineup changes, and perhaps he shouldn’t. Alex Poythress seems to have this sixth man thing down.
Even if he doesn’t make headlines with his postgame quotes. He lets his game do his talking for him.
(Dick Gabriel is in his 25th season with the UK TV and Radio Networks, and can be heard on the Big Blue Insider Monday through Friday from 6-8 p.m. ET on 630 WLAP-AM and wlap.com.)