After scoring from the low post while being fouled early in the first half, Kentucky freshman Alex Poythress repeatedly hopped in place as if on an invisible pogo stick. Then he hoppity-hop-hopped toward the foul line to shoot an and-one free throw. For several seconds, he practically vibrated with joy.
Teammate Nerlens Noel, who rushed over to help Poythress celebrate, interpreted.
"I mean, he was ballin'," Noel said when asked what Poythress' hops meant. "He was ready to ball."
Kentucky rode Poythress's production and new-found animation to a 75-70 victory over LSU on Saturday.
Poythress, heretofore reserved in manner on and off the court, posted his first career double-double (20 points and 12 rebounds). To hear UK Coach John Calipari, Poythress also had another first.
"That's the first time he smiled all year," Calipari said. "As he walked of the court, he smiled."
Not true, Poythress said with an ironic smile.
"It wasn't the first time I've ever smiled," he said in an even tone. "People think I'm a stone-faced guy. I don't know where that comes from. But it's all good."
Stone-faced works in poker. Alas, Poythress said the card games he plays are spades and tonk.
The lack of emotion hasn't worked in basketball. Calipari almost sounded apologetic for his constant prodding of Poythress this season.
"I was so proud of Alex," he said in the post-game news conference. "I can't begin to tell you. He has basically, in his mind, been tortured to play harder, to compete. In other words, it's like torture what we're doing to him, just making him run, making him do individuals, pushing him."
Poythress, who averaged a solid (for a freshman) 9.4 points and 6.4 rebounds in five previous Southeastern Conference games, downplayed the reference to torture.
"Yeah, it's tough," he said of Calipari's one-on-one practice sessions. "You know, not every person can go through it. I'm fine."
But, no, he added, "It didn't feel like torture."
Yet Noel acknowledged feeling sympathy for Poythress as Calipari inflicted, shall we say, enhanced demands for more effort and zeal
"I do sometimes," Noel said. "But it's only going to help him in the long run. He has to change, and I saw change tonight."
Poythress, who equaled career highs by making eight of 10 free throws and getting a steal, sparked several rounds of applause from the Rupp Arena crowd, which was announced at 24,248.
"I thought he was the big difference-maker in the game," LSU's first-year coach, Johnny Jones, said as Kentucky improved to 13-6 overall and 4-2 in the SEC.
Down the stretch, Poythress was everywhere. When LSU (10-7, 1-5) closed a one-time 15-point deficit to 66-63 with 3:10 left, he rose above all to rebound Kyle Wiltjer's three-point miss. Fouled on the put-back attempt, he made one of two free throws to ease the tension.
When LSU missed its next shot, a Tiger went over Poythress's back for the rebound. He made two more free throws.
Poythress' steal came on the next LSU possession.
Then, he set the final score by making two clinching free throws with one second on the clock.
"I'm telling you, without him, we don't win," Calipari told reporters.
The game began ominously for Poythress. He picked up his first foul a minute after tip-off. For a freshman who fouled out in 15 minutes at Alabama on Tuesday, it might have been unsettling.
"Some B.S.," he called the foul. "Dude just fell."
Thereafter, Poythress played freely and productively, never so memorably than when facing LSU's signature pressure in the second half. With UK's 40-25 first-half lead narrowed to 63-54, the Tigers tried to pounce.
Poythress got the ball near the LSU bench. Upon reaching half-court, he needed only two more dribbles to reach the basket and finish an oh-so-easy layup.
"Beautiful," Noel said.
Added Calipari: "I just want to see that competitive spirit in him, and that's what he showed today."
Poythress scoffed, mildly of course, at the notion that he hadn't been having fun. "I'm playing basketball," he said. "I don't know why it wouldn't be fun."
He made no promises about turning a metaphoric corner against LSU and becoming a fearsome competitor game after game.
But UK will hope so.
"I mean, you've got to see it to believe it," Noel said. "Most people saw it tonight. I feel he turned the corner. The main thing is he stays on himself as much as we stay on him to continue to build on it."
Kentucky at Mississippi
When: Tuesday, 9 p.m. (ESPN)
Jerry Tipton: (859) 231-3227 Twitter: @JerryTipton Blog: ukbasketball.bloginky.com