Rupp Arena was anything but comfortable in the closing minutes on Saturday, but John Calipari simply had to take Alex Poythress out with one second on the clock. He had to recognize what the freshman forward had just done.
"I was so proud of Alex," Calipari said. "I can't begin to tell you."
Poythress had just delivered the best performance of his college career. UK (13-6, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) needed every bit of it to escape with a 75-70 win over LSU (10-7, 1-5 SEC). He was good from the opening tip, but it was the way Poythress finished that made his effort so special.
The visiting Tigers, even as UK led by double digits much of the afternoon, weren't going away. The Wildcats were up 11 with less than seven minutes remaining before LSU rallied furiously, trimming the Kentucky lead to 66-63 with 3:17 left. But there was Poythress, a player who has maddened fans and coaches alike by teasing with his incredible talent only to fade into the background for long stretches.
"I'm telling you, without him, we don't win," Calipari said.
Poythress scored five points in the waning minutes, all on free throws. He grabbed a steal that killed 32 crucial seconds and had arguably the game's two biggest rebounds in posting his first career double-double with 20 points and 12 rebounds.
"That's Alex at his best - he was a beast," said Archie Goodwin, who had 15 points of his own. "And he played so efficient. It's hard for us to lose when he plays like that, 20 and 12."
The first of his late-game boards was off of a Kyle Wiltjer miss. With the lead sitting at a tenuous three points, he came up with the loose ball under the basket and was fouled. The second rebound was the final one of the game. After Coach Cal wisely ordered his players to foul leading by three with 3.1 seconds left, Anthony Hickey missed the front end of a one-and-one and Poythress was there. He was fouled immediately and calmly sank both attempts at the line to finally remove all doubt.
There have been many instances this season when Coach Cal has removed Poythress from games under unpleasant circumstances, but this was quite the opposite. With the game in hand, Poythress came to the bench with fans giving him a standing ovation. When he got to the sideline, Calipari wrapped Poythress in a bear hug.
Spectators who haven't followed this Kentucky team all season likely saw the moment as a coach embracing a player who carried his team to a single victory. But almost everyone in Rupp in this day knew it was about much more. Calipari has spent this entire season trying to tap into Poythress's vast potential, trying to coax some measure of fire out of the normally stoic Poythress. It was indeed just one game, but never has Poythress played at such high level for such an extended amount of time.
"He is basically in his mind, been tortured to play harder, to compete," Calipari said. "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."
Never has Poythress shown so much emotion on the court either.
"And he smiled," Calipari said. "That's the first time he smiled all year, as he walked off the court, he smiled."
That's a bit of an exaggeration, because there were plenty of other times in this game when a grin crossed his face. Even so, Poythress's smile as he checked out for the final time stuck out.
"It was fun today so, you know, I had to smile," Poythress said.
More than in any of his dozens of interviews this season, Poythress used the word "fun" after his big game against LSU. The topic has become a popular one as fans and media tried to interpret his body language. Some even began to question whether he enjoyed playing.
"People shouldn't wonder that," Poythress said. "I love playing basketball. It's my favorite sport. I've been playing it since I was a little young pup, so I love the sport."
He insists that the entire season, with all its ups and downs and Calipari riding him all along, has been enjoyable. That doesn't mean playing as well as he did on Saturday didn't make it a little more so.
"He's getting it," Calipari said. "All these kids are different. They are not machines. They have all been brought up different. They have all been coached different. They are all different, and our job is to help each one of them reach their potential and challenge them."
So, where does this game leave Poythress in his own unique developmental path?
"It's just a process," Poythress said. "We're just trying to work on it and I'm trying to do my best every game."
That's all Coach Cal is asking.
"You talk about success being a peace of mind knowing you've done your best," Calipari said. "Today he can walk out of there knowing he did his best."