John Clay

John Clay: From out of nowhere, Isaac Humphries gives Kentucky basketball a lift

In the second half of Kentucky’s convincing 80-61 win on Saturday, Florida’s John Egnubu, a 6-foot-11 sophomore center from Nigeria, was about to throw down a near-certain dunk when out of nowhere came Isaac Humphries to block the shot.

That’s not a typo. It was Isaac Humphries. On the floor. For Kentucky. Making a play. In the heart of the game. You remember Isaac Humphries?

“I just went for it and I swatted it really,” said the 7-foot freshman from Sydney, Australia. “It felt great. I had been waiting for the moment to do — what you call it?”

Humphries flexed his arms to show his muscles.

“I don’t even know what you call it,” he continued. “I’ve been waiting for that for so long. Finally, I got the opportunity.”

Saturday, Humphries made the most of his opportunity. With Alex Poythress a pre-game scratch thanks to right knee (non-surgical knee) soreness, the scarcely-used newcomer contributed four points, six rebounds and two blocked shots in 15 valuable minutes as Kentucky snapped a two-game losing streak with a much-needed win.

“I’m very self-critical,” Humphries said afterward, “and I can honestly say I think I did well.”

“He earned his space,” agreed John Calipari, the UK head coach. “I’m so happy for him because he hasn’t had the opportunity, and what he did was he took advantage. We all look and say, ‘He needs to play.’”

At the first of the season, Humphries was playing. His third college game, he played an effective 12 minutes in UK’s 74-63 win over Duke in the Champions Classic. On Dec. 3, he played a season-high 27 minutes in UK’s 87-77 loss at UCLA.

If you didn’t know better, you’d have thought maybe the Cats left the big Australian in California. Before Saturday, Humphries had played all of 21 minutes since. He’d seen action in just six games.

In the meantime, the Cats dealt with one frontcourt problem after another. Freshman center Skal Labissiere had gone from potential No. 1 NBA Draft pick to a reserve role. Junior forward Marcus Lee had battled chronic foul trouble. Senior foward Poythress had ridden a performance rollercoaster, sometimes in the same game.

“All of the bigs fouled out against Kansas, and I just kind of stayed (on the bench),” Humphries said Saturday. “It’s just how it works, and I’m happy, so it’s fine.”

Still, the pine time couldn’t have been easy given so much of talk about this team’s shortcomings in the post.

“I just tried to stay positive and mentally keep thinking my time will come,” Humphries said. “I know I was young and I needed to develop, which is what I’ve been doing.”

When word came a gimpy knee would keep Poythress from playing, Calipari told Humphries, “Here it is. Go have fun.”

“There were a lot of emotions, to be honest,” Humphries said. “The main emotion was just determination.”

Teammates were rooting him on. Important teammates. Point guard and team leader Tyler Ulis said he had been telling assistant Kenny Payne that Humphries deserved a shot.

“Today I talked to him like, ‘Come on Isaac, you’ve got to step in and do it for me.’” Ulis said. “He just came out and played help side defense, blocking shots, walling up. Defensively, he did a great job; offensive rebounding. I felt like he had a great game.”

“When he said that, I got really fired up,” Humphries said of Ulis’ message. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to do this for you because you’ve been batting for me. Now I’ve got to prove like everyone else that you were right, and I can do it.”

Then there was Jamal Murray, the freshman who scored a career-high 35 points on Saturday, who had seen Humphries in international competition and lobbied Calipari to sign the Australian.

“At one point he blocked a dunk and everybody was like stunned. He came out of nowhere,” said Murray, who got to Humphries first after the block. “Everybody was laughing and smiling.”

“He just screamed,” Humphries said. “I told him later there wasn’t anybody I wanted coming over there first but him.”

Now, how does Humphrey keep from disappearing again?

“I just need to stay consistent,” said the freshman. “I finally got an opportunity, and now I’ve got to keep growing on that.”

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