ARLINGTON, Texas -- Kentucky may start five freshmen but it was a sophomore who sparked the Wildcats late and led UK to the national championship game.
Before UK's Final Four showdown with the Wisconsin Badgers, John Calipari, who is looking more and more like a prophet with each stunning performance, said that Alex Poythress had more to give. He predicted that, like Marcus Lee before him, Poythress was due for a performance everyone would be talking about after Kentucky's Final Four game against Wisconsin.
"Alex is playing great and he's halfway home," Calipari said at his pre-Final Four press conference. "He's in the best shape, he's mentally better, he's helping us win. ... But now, they should be talking about him worldwide, but he's got to let loose."
And let loose, Poythress did.
After battling back from foul trouble and sloppy play, Poythress came up big late in the game two huge plays. His monstrous dunk with 4:45 to play got UK within two points at 69-67, and his layup, a play in which he soared well above his defender to snag a lob pass from Andrew Harrison, gave the Cats a 71-69 lead, erupted the crowd at AT&T Stadium and set the stage for Aaron Harrison's game-winning shot in the 74-73 victory on Saturday.
"It felt good," Poythress said about battling back. "It got the momentum going. It sparked a little run for us. It got the bench hyped, got everybody into the game a little more."
Poythress finished with eight points -- four of which came in the final five minutes of the game -- and seven rebounds.
"Alex lost himself in the game," Calipari said.
Calipari thinks Poythress' aggressiveness and fierce play came from watching what Lee did in the Louisville game.
"Marcus Lee kind of woke him up," Calipari said. "Like if Marcus Lee can do that, I can do that. Everyone on this team is waiting for him to break out like he did and like he is now. He's in the best shape of his life. Mentally, he's in a great place mentally. He's playing fearless and he's just almost reckless, which is great for him because of his athleticism."
So Calipari predicted Poythress would come through against the Badgers.
"I texted him before because I had a bunch of my friends say he's going to have a big game," Calipari said. "I texted him, 'This is what they're saying, man. I love you.' He said, 'I love you, Coach, let's go have some fun.' And he went out there and played great."
His teammates were all proud of Poythress' performance.
"Unbelievable," Julius Randle said. "Huge. Just happy that he's playing that way. I'm just really proud of him and what he did for our team."
Willie Cauley-Stein, who was forced to watch the game from the bench due to a left ankle injury, thinks the positive vibes from the team and coaches helped fuel Poythress' performance.
"I've been with Alex for almost, a few years now," Cauley-Stein said. "I think that's how you get him going, all the positivity. Being negative with him, anybody when you're being negative to them, they just don't care. They're obviously going to fuel themselves, but you being positive, constantly in his ear like that, that's how you get Alex to play the way he does."
During the game, Poythress had an uplifting moment with assistant coach Kenny Payne, which he credits to the spark he brought the team when it needed him most.
"He said 'Keep on playing, man. We need you, we need you,' " Poythress said. "It's just how he is. He expects the best out of me. He's not going to settle for anything less. That's just the type of relationship me and KP have."
When the buzzer sounded, all of the Wildcats jumped on top of each other and Poythress ended up on the bottom of the dog pile. Poythress limped off the court after the celebration, apparently injured by the postgame pile-up, but Poythress said he is fine.
"It's heavy," Poythress said of the dog pile. "Everybody is on you. But you're just having fun, being a bunch of kids."
On a team of a bunch of kids, the sophomore helped spark the victory.
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.