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Poythress responds to Coach Cal's challenge, lifts UK past U of L

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Alex Poythress scored all six of his points during UK's game-ending 15-3 run. (Chet White, UK Athletics) Alex Poythress scored all six of his points during UK's game-ending 15-3 run. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
INDIANAPOLIS -- After everything that had just happened, there was really only one question on anyone's mind.

Dakari Johnson was the man it was directed to.

"Dakari, how in the hell did you guys win this game?"

How, indeed.

UK had just completed an improbable rally from 13 points down in the first half and seven with less than five minutes to go to take defending national champion Louisville. The Wildcats did it without defensive anchor Willie Cauley-Stein, who exited with an ankle injury early, and with swingman James Young on the bench for the final minutes with five fouls.

After a hearty laugh, Johnson offered a simple reason why UK had just pulled off a 74-69 victory.

"Well, when we were down by seven Alex (Poythress) made a lot of key plays for us," Johnson said. "I think he played well down the stretch for us. I think he won the game for us."

It was Poythress's dunk that started the 15-3 run on which UK closed the game. Thirty seconds later, it was his block of a Louisville layup -- the kind of play Cauley-Stein would normally make -- that gave the ball back to the Cats.

"I think the block that he got was probably the biggest play, when he blocked Russ Smith," said Dominique Hawkins, who made more than his share of big plays in chasing U of L's dynamic senior guard.

Julius Randle would bring UK to within three with a bank shot in the post, setting Poythress up for another signature moment.

At the top of the key, Luke Hancock -- seemingly poised to close out another NCAA Tournament victory for the Cardinals -- came around a ball screen and Poythress switched onto him. Finding another level of focus as Hancock drove to the basket, Poythress stripped the reigning Final Four Most Outstanding Player and forced a turnover.

To finish off what was probably the best -- and undoubtedly the most important -- three-minute stretch of his UK career, Poythress corralled an offensive rebound, finished through contact and hit the ensuing free throw to tie the game at 66-all. Forty-five seconds later, he skied for a rebound, was fouled and hit one of two free throws to give UK its first lead since 2-0.

Prior to his outburst, to call Poythress's night quiet would have been too kind.  At that point, the sophomore forward was scoreless and had just two rebounds.

With Cauley-Stein in the locker room, John Calipari needed his other big men to step up. Johnson was, punishing the archrival Cardinals to the tune of 15 points and six rebounds, as was Randle, who posted his 23rd double-double.

To pull off a second upset in five days and advance to a fourth Elite Eight in five seasons, Poythress would have to follow suit. Coach Cal told him so on the sideline in no uncertain terms.

"He was crushing him pretty bad," Jarrod Polson said. "I just think it's 'cause he just knows how good Alex is."

Polson, who counts Poythress as one of his closest friends on the team, took it upon himself to take him aside to reinforce in slightly softer terms the message he knew Calipari was trying to send.

"I just was telling him to keep his head up," Polson said. "I was just telling him, 'You're one of the best players I've ever played with and keep your confidence.' "

With that combination of Calipari's prodding and Polson's cajoling, Poythress played like a man possessed.

"I was just trying to step up for my team," Poythress said. "The team needed me. They were telling me they needed me. I was just trying to step up for them."

He did, and Kentucky moved on because of it. Now, to take the next step past second-seeded Michigan and into the Final Four, the Cats will need him once more.

"We were begging him the whole game to start playing, and he played at the right time," Calipari said. "It was unbelievable how he finished. That's who he needs to be for us as we finish the year out."

To bring you more expansive coverage, CoachCal.com and Cat Scratches will be joining forces for the postseason. You can read the same great stories you are accustomed to from both sites at CoachCal.com and UKathletics.com/blog, but now you'll enjoy even more coverage than normal.

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