The Wildcats led Texas A&M by just four points early in the second half after building a double-digit advantage before halftime. The Rupp Arena crowd was anxious, surely anticipating another nip-and-tuck finish.
It was then, however, that UK turned to a source of energy that has gone from unlikely to expected within the last two months: Alex Poythress.
"He made plays like, 'How did he make that play?' " John Calipari said. "And that's how we got a little gap."
He scored the game's next seven points, the last three coming on an open-floor and-one that drew a big reaction from his teammates and even a smile from the normally stoic Poythress. After an A&M 3 briefly cut the lead to eight, Poythress delivered a gravity-defying dunk to give the No. 14/14 Cats (14-4, 3-1 Southeastern Conference) a double-digit lead they wouldn't relinquish en route to a 68-51 win over the Aggies (12-6, 3-2 SEC).
"We wanted to get the game and keep it going and stretch out the lead," said Poythress, who finished with a season-high 16 points. "We were playing great defense. We just needed a couple stops."
Not long ago, Poythress would have been among the last players expected to step up in that moment. Still battling the inconsistency that plagued him as a freshman, Poythress teased with his incredible potential but far too infrequently for him to be relied on regularly.
Over the last month, that's changed completely.
It began in preparation, which prompted Coach Cal to make occasional mention of Poythress's performance in practices. In December, the results began to trickle in on the floor. There was the solid six-point, eight-rebound effort and North Carolina, the seven points he scored in UK's best win of the season over Louisville. Though he wasn't blowing anyone away with his statistics, UK just seemed to be better when Poythress was in the game.
Meanwhile, Poythress was building his confidence brick by brick.
"I can't really speak for him, but just what I see when I'm guarding him he's more assertive, sure of himself and playing with a lot of confidence and just attacking and not thinking so much," Julius Randle said.
With newfound self-assurance, Poythress has become the sixth man UK can always count on to deliver, even if it doesn't always mean scoring 11 straight points for his team.
"I'm just trying to bring energy off the bench and just play my role and do what I can to help the team win," Poythress said.
Poythress has evolved into a 6-foot-8, 239-pound terror Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy called "dominant" after his team lost in Rupp Arena. Coach Cal had a more violent though no less complimentary description.
"Mentally, Alex thinks he's going to kill you, so he will," Calipari said. "Last year that's not how Alex was thinking."
In five games of SEC play, Poythress is averaging 10.6 points and at least one rim-rattling dunk per game. On defense, Poythress has gone from a nonfactor to a versatile weapon capable of guarding both post and perimeter players. During that same stretch to open conference play, he has 10 blocks after registering two against Texas A&M. He had just 14 his entire freshman year.
"Alex, I keep saying, Alex, what you're seeing is what I'm seeing in practice, which is like, holy cow," Calipari said. "I mean, he's just dominating, making his free throws, making jump shots."
Randle has had an up-close view of that dominance, as the two athletic forwards most often matchup with one another in practice. He's ecstatic to see the player he has to deal with in practice show up in games.
"We all see the work he puts in and just to finally see him break through and play great, I couldn't be more happy for him," said Randle, who had his 11th double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds. "It's just real exciting because if he does that we know our team just goes to another level."
That's perhaps no truer than when opponents deploy the zone defenses the Cats are likely to see throughout the season.
Normally, the term "zone buster" is reserved for a knockdown outside shooter, but Poythress proved to be just that on Tuesday night. Against A&M's 2-3, Poythress roamed the baseline. Waiting for either a pass and a chance to attack the rim or an offensive-rebounding opportunity, he was constantly ready to pounce.
"He's just so explosive," Randle said. "Our guards can penetrate and shoot or they can penetrate and kick to him and he'll score the ball and dunk the ball or whatever. So it's a huge help."
As much of a help as that may be, Coach Cal is much more concerned with attitude, mentality and hard work when it comes to any of his players. After all, those are the reasons for Poythress's transformation. Now, Calipari is looking to apply those lessons elsewhere.
"It's kind of like chipping away at a rock," Calipari said in reference to Derek Willis. "You keep hitting and hitting and hitting and hitting and then all of a sudden it's been weeks and it's been months and there's one hit and it splits and you split the rock and you made it. You're over the hump."
Poythress may appear to be over that hump, but Calipari still knows there's only one way for anyone to stay on the right side of it.
"It's never good enough," Calipari said. "You're always hungry. You're always humble, but you're always hungry to get better. The minute you're satisfied, you start going the wrong way."
Not to worry, Poythress isn't.
"Just keep on working hard," he said. "We've got an off day tomorrow. Just come in Thursday prepared and ready to practice, have a good practice then and a good practice Friday and just translate to the game."