Kentucky Coach John Calipari kept gushing about Alex Poythress' play even though the statistics only trickled over boxscores. The more the stat line whispered, the more Calipari extolled the sophomore forward as a burgeoning force.
Never mind the numbers, Calipari finally said.
What Calipari saw became obvious to all Tuesday night. Poythress made play after play on both ends of the court in a second-half flurry that propelled Kentucky to a 68-51 victory over Texas A&M.
With UK leading 39-33, Poythress hit two free throws. Then he rose from the pack to block a Texas A&M shot. Then he drove on the fast-break to a three-point play.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
After the Aggies hit a three-pointer, Poythress showed the kind of take-charge will that his combination of size and athleticism has suggested for two seasons. He drove into a lane crowded with teammates and defenders. He took off near the elbow and floated to the rim where he slammed home a dunk that put Kentucky ahead 46-36.
Poythress wasn't done. He elevated above everyone for a defensive rebound. He Euro-stepped into the lane for a power shot from the lane.
When Poythress went to the bench for a breather with 8:55 left, the crowd gave him an ovation. More than a few in the announced crowd of 22,634 (almost spot on UK's home average of 22,645 despite the single-digit temperatures outside) stood and applauded.
Poythress finished with a season-high 16 points, five rebounds and two blocks. It wasn't as spectacular as the 40-point explosion put on display last season by A&M's Elston Turner. But it suggested Kentucky had another weapon at its disposal.
Of course, Kentucky, 14-4 overall and 4-1 in the Southeastern Conference, already had an abundance of talent. "Probably the best team I've ever coached against," A&M Coach Billy Kennedy said before the game.
James Young added 15 points, seven rebounds and two assists for UK.
The Aggies, 12-6 overall and 3-2 in the SEC, sorely missed Turner's scoring. A&M came into the game ranked No. 249 in the nation in scoring (69.3 ppg), and didn't match Turner's 40 points from last year until Kourtney Roberson made two free throws with 7:19 left. Alex Caruso and Davonte Fitzgerald (the SEC's Freshman of the Week last week) led the Aggies with 12 points each.
Julius Randle posted his 11th double-double: 13 points and 11 rebounds. That came as no surprise to Kennedy, who tried in vain to recruit Randle and the Harrison twins from their Texas high schools.
"Julius Randle and the Harrison twins will do the dirty work," Kennedy said. "They're winners. All three of them had great motors. They'll fight you. They're mature beyond their years."
Kennedy said he tried to recruit the three Texans in the summer before their junior year. "We had a hard time catching up," he said.
Despite being three-pointer happy, Kentucky led 34-27 at halftime. Last weekend, Calipari said UK was not a three-point shooting team even though 7-for-16 shooting from beyond the arc helped beat Tennessee.
The Cats must not have gotten the message. Kentucky took 15 three-point shots in the first half. That's more than UK took in seven earlier games this season and nearly matched the Cats' average of 16 three-point shots per game.
Making five of the three-point shots helped Kentucky nullify a 10-point deficit in points from the paint and create its seven-point halftime lead. Three treys before the first television timeout allowed UK to avoid another slow start. The Cats led by six early and trailed for only 36 seconds in first half.
Texas A&M's foul trouble also helped. The Aggies were whistled for 12 first-half fouls. Leading scorer Jamal Jones picked up three fouls, A&M averaged 17.3 fouls going into the game. Or as a UK fan could be heard bellowing, "Welcome to Rupp."
UK did not break open the game early in the second half. But it wasn't for lack of trying. Most memorably, Randle missed from the low post, then dived for the loose-ball rebound near the sideline. His effort was rewarded when Young hit a floater.