Jojo Kemp carried 17 times for 131 yards and three touchdowns in UK's upset of South Carolina on Saturday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Understandably, Jojo Kemp was tired.
On a potential game-tying fourth quarter drive against South Carolina, Kemp was carrying the load for Kentucky but he needed a break. He signaled as much to the sideline, but the Wildcats couldn't afford not to have him in the game.
And on the very next play, Kemp unleashed his longest run of the night.
"He put the team on his back," Stoops said. "He was trying to come out of the game once. I said, 'That's it; no more. You stay in there, grind it out.' And he did."
After that 43-yard run out of the Wildcat formation, Kemp stayed down on the left sideline. Completely exhausted, he finally got up and limped off after cheers of "Jojo, Jojo!" rang through Commonwealth Stadium. He needed only a one-play break before reentering and scoring from five yards out to tie the game.
"I ain't gonna lie, I was gassed," Kemp said. "But I had to lay it on the line for my team. We've been working so hard and I've been wanting to show the fans what our hard work has been doing so far and it finally paid off."
It paid off in the form of a 45-38 victory, one that sent UK (4-1, 2-1 Southeastern Conference) to a second consecutive SEC win. Star defensive end/linebacker Bud Dupree scored the game-winning touchdown, snaring a pass fellow senior Mike Douglas batted into the air and returning it six yards.
"Bud is a heck of an athlete," Kemp said. "Bud, he's great. He's a great leader and we kind of did this for the seniors tonight."
The seniors may have been the inspiration, but it was a sophomore who carried the heaviest load.
Kentucky, having already overcome a 14-0 first-half deficit to take a 24-17 lead, found itself trailing 38-24 when Mike Davis sprinted 26 yards for a touchdown with 11:45 left. It was at that point that most teams would turn to the pass to make a comeback, but the Cats went the other direction.
"I really liked what we were doing coming into the game," offensive coordinator Neal Brown said. "I thought we were right on schedule with our plan and I knew if we just stayed with it. ... I knew if we just stayed the course I felt like we were playing well enough up front that we could get back in the game."
Brown would call on Patrick Towles - who played a solid game, completing 20-of-29 passes for 208 yards and a touchdown - to throw just one pass as the Cats mounted a furious rally. In fact, Towles was split out wide more often than not in the formation that's come to known as the "WildKemp."
"I'll take it," Towles said. "I probably didn't expect that we'd do it that much, but if it's productive why go away from it?"
Productive might be an understatement.
Kemp ran 17 times for a career-high 131 yards to go with three touchdowns. In the fourth quarter alone, he piled up 116 yards and two scores on 14 carries.
"I felt like at the end of the game if we got in it we could get rolling," Brown said. "I thought the fourth quarter having success on first down was huge for us. I really felt like we had enough time to stay in it and we did. Jojo did a great job. He's going to get a lot of the credit, but we blocked really well up front."
Kemp doesn't disagree.
"My o-line, they were out there hungry, fighting for every yard I got," Kemp said. "So I gotta give the praise to my o-line."
The Wildcat formation has become a mainstay of the UK offense over the last two weeks. Against Vanderbilt, the Cats used it to salt away a win. Against South Carolina, it was the means to a thrilling comeback.
"What happens is you bring the motion, so you gotta defend the motion because that's two of our better players, whether it was Javess (Blue) or (Ryan) Timmons coming in, you gotta defend the sweep," Brown said. "And then all the motion, the defenders gotta move, can't play it downhill as much. And Jojo's got a really good feel for it. You have to be patient."
Brown has been patient in his Wildcat play-calling as well, keeping an ace of a trick play up his sleeve until the first drive of the second half.
In the first, UK scored both its touchdowns off Wildcat looks, first with Kemp and later on a 38-yard burst by Braylon Heard. The trap set, Brown called for an end around to Blue off the Wildcat and reverse to Towles. Timmons wide open by 25 yards, Towles threw deep for a 48-yard touchdown.
"That was the first trick play I think we've hit it right since I've been here," Brown said. "We used to hit those all the time at Tech and Troy. So that was fun. It was a big play in the game. You talk about--that place was loud. When we hit that and Timmons scored, this place was electric."
It was even more electric after Kemp's final three carries of the night.
After Dupree's interception return, the UK defense came up with yet another stop when Ashely Lowery picked off a Dylan Thompson pass. Needing just one first down to kill the final 1:31, Brown unsurprisingly called Kemp's number.
With some help from a South Carolina offsides penalty, the Cats picked up that first down with three carries by Kemp. When the official measurement revealed that Kemp had reached the line to gain, it touched off a raucous field-rushing situation.
"I gave a lot (of high-fives), but I was just trying to get my breathing," Kemp said. "I was gassed."
He had enough energy to make a short walk in the postgame locker room when his coach summoned him.
"Jojo, so proud of Jojo," Stoops said. "I think that was, other than some special guests we have sometimes when we honor somebody, that was the first game ball I gave out tonight. Called JoJo up and gave him a game ball. Because just sheer determination that he had."
College football is an emotional game and Mark Stoops is an emotional guy.
Anyone who has seen him yell at an official after a bad call -- and seen his facial expressions in said tirades -- can attest to that.
And still he'd never experienced as a head coach the emotional ups and downs, and ultimately highs, that he did in Saturday's 45-38 comeback win over South Carolina.
"It's hard to describe how much pride you feel for the team, just for everybody in our organization," Stoops said. "You know to fight back through that adversity. To start down 14 points, and be down 14 in the fourth ... it just felt uphill the whole game. Felt frustrating."
But who could blame the UK coach, who after not winning a Southeastern Conference game during his debut season last year now has won two in a row, and has his team very much in the thick of the race for the SEC East title, for getting a bit overwhelmed after the game?
The manner in which Stoops' team won, coming back from not one, but two 14-point deficits, including that score line in the fourth quarter would be enough to overwhelm just about anyone.
"It's really hard to put into words," Stoops said. "I think just I feel very proud of the whole group and all the work that we put in. And it was emotional. I felt overwhelmed at times when I was on that field. It happened so quick.
"I was frustrated a lot of the night. But just very grateful, I think, is the thing that comes to mind and appreciate the guys in that locker room."
And so after celebrating on-field postgame with thousands of members of the Big Blue Nation, talking to his team and giving away the game ball to a current player for the first time in his career, Stoops soaked in just how much Saturday's win meant.
He apparently enjoyed the moment so much that he didn't want it to end. So he actually extended his press conference to two extra questions because he was "enjoying it too much."
Perhaps adding just a measure of the feel-good factor to the win was who was standing across from him on the opposite sideline. The relationship between the Stoops and Spurrier families has been well-documented as Mark's brother Bob -- now the head coach at Oklahoma -- was the defensive coordinator under Steve Spurrier on the staffs that built Florida into one of the nation's premier programs in the 1990s.
The frustration Stoops spoke so much about postgame was in many ways attributable to Spurrier's coaching prowess.
"Coach Spurrier, I have so much respect for offensively, and he went to some--not different things, because he's run all those sets before, but he featured them and kept us out and kept us really off balance," Stoops said. "And it was very frustrating. That's why he's a Hall of Fame coach and won an awful lot of football games."
But the gravity of the moment was not lost on Stoops, and it moved him enough to engage in a time-tested football tradition, which the second-year coach had never engaged in before tonight. Perhaps he never had a big enough win to do it, or perhaps he had never had a player deserving enough of the honor.
But Jojo Kemp's three-touchdown, 131-yard game, which also included a big third-down conversion with barely a minute remaining, was worthy.
"JoJo , (I'm) so proud of JoJo," Stoops said. "I think that was, other than some special guests we have sometimes when we honor somebody, that was the first game ball I gave out tonight. Called JoJo up and gave him a game ball.
"Because just sheer determination that he had. He put the team on his back. He was trying to come out of the game once. I said: That's it; no more. You stay in there, grind it out. And he did.
Morgan Bergren had 48 assists and six kills in UK's four-set win over Alabama on Friday. (Britney Howard, UK Athletics)
Through two sets, UK was in control.
In a matchup of two teams that had won a combined 15 matches in a row, the Wildcats charged to a 2-0 lead over Alabama. Kentucky, however, hit a lull in the third set and the Crimson Tide took advantage.
After that, it was all about the Cats getting back to what had staked them to a lead to begin with.
"I think we just had to pick up our intensity and trust what we do and stay aggressive," setter Morgan Bergren said. "That's one thing we talked about in the locker room before the game, is just constant aggression on them. I think we lost that a little bit in the third game and finally got it back in the fourth game."
On the strength of that aggressiveness, No. 13 UK (13-2, 3-0 Southeastern Conference) got the win in its conference home opener. The Cats extended their winning streak to seven with the victory and ended a nine-game streak for the Tide (14-3, 2-1 SEC).
"I expected a match comparable to sets three and four the whole night," head coach Craig Skinner said. "We ran away with it in set two but I didn't think that was normal in a situation like that. Just physically we earned our points. Alabama didn't give them to us and that's probably the most pleasing thing so far tonight."
Most of the time, when the Cats did earn their points in a four-set win, Bergren was in the middle of it.
The junior assisted on 48 of UK's 98 points, adding six kills to boot. She was at her best when it mattered most, leading the Cats after Alabama appeared poised to force a decisive fifth set by taking a 19-15 lead in the fourth.
"She did a nice job," Skinner said. "She I think lost her way a little bit in set three and then really found her groove in set four. That's pretty important under pressure who you go to and who you find to get swings. She did a great job."
Bergren's favorite target on Friday night was Shelby Workman, who totaled 19 kills and hit .459. Lauren O'Conner added 15 kills and Anni Thomasson 10, statistics indicative of the way Bergren spreads the ball around.
"I'm comfortable setting anyone," Bergren said. "I feel like all of our attackers carry a strong presence and anyone is available to go to at any time. Tonight Shelby was really good for us and picked us up and used the block really well to her advantage."
Bergren is in her second season as UK's full-time starter at setter, but the offense she's running this season looks much different than it did in 2013. The Cats, as you'd expect, have had to adjust to life without All-Americans Whitney Billings and Alexandra Morgan.
"Early on I think I was a little bit hesitant running the middle and they've proven day in and day out in practice that they're up and they're ready and they're ready to go expecting the ball," Bergren said.
With Bergren looking more comfortable by the match, UK is playing its best volleyball of the season early in SEC play.
"I think you really start to understand how important good setting is," Skinner said. "We're averaging more kills per set than we have in three years. A lot of that has to do with your setter and good decision-making and getting one-on-ones. She's very good at what she does."
Entering a tough test against No. 21 Texas A&M at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday, Bergren sees one more area a confident UK team needs to address.
"Right now everything feels good," Bergren said. "Every now and then we hit that little lull in either game two or game three and that's something we have to improve on and not get too comfortable and relaxed and let the other teams come back on us. Other than that, I don't think we have any doubts going into any of the matches."
Kentucky Wildcats TV continues to produce some great stuff as UK's Saturday matchup with South Carolina approaches. This time, Patrick Towles sits down to talk about his journey from third stringer a year ago to having a breakout season as the starter in 2014.
And by the way, one of the best players in UK history and current Green Bay Packer star Randall Cobb will be in attendance to watch Towles and the Cats in action this weekend.
Alex Poythress starred for Kentucky on the Big Blue Bahamas tour in August. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
Alex Poythress and Willie Cauley-Stein are Kentucky basketball's odd couple.
Poythress is the quiet one. With the media, he's polite but reserved. On the court, he lets his game do the talking.
Cauley-Stein, on the other hand, will never be mistaken for shy. From his candid, often off-the-wall answers in interviews to his tweets all the way down to his clothes, his personality comes through.
The contrast might make the two juniors seem unlikely to share a bond, but you won't find two players on the team closer than Poythress and Cauley-Stein. In fact, it's their differences that bring them together.
"He's more outgoing, talking, doing a lot of stuff," Poythress said. "I'm more laidback, chill. That's probably why we get along."
They get along so well that when John Calipari learned Cauley-Stein would bypass the NBA Draft, he immediately figured Poythress would do the same.
The word "brother" comes up often when Cauley-Stein and Poythress talk about one another. The two suitemates also agree that their ages (Cauley-Stein is the elder by 19 days) belie the true nature of their relationship.
"Even though he's younger than me, he's like the older brother," Cauley-Stein said. "I'm the kind of dude that wants to go outside and see everybody and always on the move, and he's always the dude that's like, I'm going to stay in the room and watch a movie and do grown-people stuff and I'm always trying to experience all the fun stuff."
For all his "grown-people stuff" off the court, Poythress has taken his time blossoming as a player on it. Given his personality, that makes some sense.
Through two college seasons, Poythress has alternated in equal measure between showing flashes of his ability to dominate and a propensity to fade into the background. There have been games like his 20-point outburst against Duke as a freshman and outings like the one just two weeks later at Notre Dame when he attempted just one shot.
It should come as no surprise that Poythress' longest sustained stretch of consistent play coincided with UK's run to the national championship game. Even still, Poythress was but a supporting cast member, providing a versatile defensive presence, rebounding and the occasional jaw-dropping play.
Once the run was over, he had a decision to make. In spite of what Coach Cal may have thought after Cauley-Stein announced his return, Poythress made the call on his own.
"I talked to the coaches, talked to my mom, talked to my dad, my sisters and my family and I just weighed my options," Poythress said. "I feel like I made the right decision to come back."
Based on early returns, Poythress appears poised to prove himself right.
Showing off what assistant John Robic called a "rebuilt engine," Poythress averaged 11.8 points - tops on the team - and 5.7 rebounds on a six-game Bahamas tour. The raw numbers aren't far off from his production through his first two seasons, but he posted them playing just 18.8 minutes per game on UK's starting platoon.
Anyone who has spent much time watching Poythress during his UK career doesn't need to look at any numbers to know the player on the floor this August was different.
"I was coming with the mindset that I'm playing good these games," Poythress said. "Coming in with that mindset, I'm going at people, making a statement really."
Physically, Poythress is still the imposing 6-foot-8, nearly 240-pound specimen he's always been. He still wears No. 22 on his jersey and a stoic expression on his face too. Inside is where Poythress has changed.
"Probably mentally," Poythress said. "Just being more focused. Mentally, being more prepared. I've been here two years. I know what to expect. Just going in and make sure I do it."
The scary thing for UK's opponents this season is Calipari still sees room for improvement. He knows the platoon system presents some unique challenges he'll have to navigate with Poythress to make sure his growth continues, but the progress the Clarksville, Tenn., has made so far is indisputable.
"He may be a guy that needs more minutes just to get more comfortable playing because, you know, that's the biggest thing with him is the comfort level in his game," Calipari said. "But, you know ... there are things he has to be able to do to be special. Because he has, you know, he's just getting so much better. ... I can't even believe he's the same player."
His evolution as a player has been accompanied by growth as a leader. Poythress is the first to admit that getting in the face of a younger teammate doesn't come naturally to him, but he also knows he'll be called on to do just that given his experience playing on one team that was bounced in the first round of the NIT and another that came up a win shy of a title.
"You can be the most laidback person off the court, but on the court you gotta speak up, you gotta be more vocal," Poythress said. "I'm doing a better job of that."
Coach Cal has had players who were able to do that the moment they arrived on campus. For even those who can't, it's still the assumption that true freshmen should be able to dominate on the court from day one.
Poythress is a reminder of how unfair that expectation is and that deviating from the one-and-done path doesn't signal failure.
"I'm a junior now," Poythress said. "It just takes people different times. Ain't nothing wrong with that. There's a lot of great players in the pros that played in college for three years. You're not really trying to worry about that. You're just trying to do what you can, however long it takes you. Just trying to take baby steps, really."