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January 26, 2013Alex Poythress was smiling.
He was playing the game of his brief college career, his 20-point, 12-rebound performance proving the difference in Kentucky's closer-than-expected 75-70 win against LSU Saturday at Rupp Arena, and Poythress' grin was unmistakable.
"But it wasn't the first time I ever smiled, though," Poythress said afterward.
It's only seemed that way sometimes.
For much of his freshman season, Poythress has been squarely in John Calipari's crosshairs, a target for a lack of consistent effort, for a lack of zest for playing his best.
Poythress caught no such heat on Saturday.
"I was so proud of Alex," Calipari said. "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, and for him to go out and make those free throws and come up with those balls and do the things that he did to help us win the game - and he smiled."
And the Wildcats (13-6, 4-2 Southeastern Conference) need just about everything Poythress provided. Leading by as many as 15 late in the first half, Kentucky watched LSU battle back to within a point in the closing seconds.
LSU (10-7, 1-5) had chances to tie, and one opportunity perhaps to take the lead when Kentucky came close to inbounding the ball with six players on the court. That play came with the Tigers trailing 71-70 and 3.9 seconds to play.
UK assistant John Robic pulled Nerlens Noel off the court, and the officials ruled that Noel was off the floor by the time LSU inbounded the ball.
Tigers coach Johnny Jones wasn't so sure. But he said the play wasn't the "game-changer," noting that LSU had its opportunities prior to the controversial inbound.
Part of the Tigers' problem: They couldn't stop Poythress.
"I thought he played extremely well," Jones said. "I thought they went to him in the post area. I thought they did an excellent job of taking advantage of the size advantage that he had, worked the angles and (Poythress) made some big plays in there early and made it very difficult for us."
LSU went big on Poythress in the second half and in an effort to take away his post game. But the 6-foot-7, 239-pound freshman still found ways to impact the game. He came up with a crucial late steal. He made 5-of-6 free throws in the final 2:42.
All that came from a player who'd averaged 9.4 points and 6.4 rebounds over his past five games.
"Phenomenal," Noel said of Poythress' play. "He came out these last couple days of practice, he's just been picking it up a lot and just getting more vocal. I thought that was the key to his success tonight: in the previous practices just getting vocal, just really having a high energy level."
That high energy level hasn't always been Poythress' calling card. And that's made him the target of frequent criticism and attention from Calipari, who has criticized Poythress publicly and put him through individual workouts privately in an effort to up his effort.
Asked if his definition of playing hard has changed this season, Poythress barely waited for the end of the question before he answered.
"Yeah," Poythress said. "It's changed a whole lot, because playing hard according to me and playing hard according to Coach Cal is a whole different level."
To get him at Calipari Level, the UK coach has put Poythress through the ringer.
"I'm very happy for him, because I know what Coach Cal has put him through," said freshman Archie Goodwin, who had 15 points and five rebounds Saturday. "It's like sometimes you feel sorry for things that he has to do in practice because, I mean, we all work hard and we know that he wants it just as much as we do."
Goodwin said Calipari's harder on Poythress than anyone else on the team and that it's "not close." Poythress paused when asked if Calipari was right to describe it as "torture."
"Do I feel that way?" he said. "Maybe a little bit, but it's all good. It's all making me better, so I embrace it."
Against LSU, it paid off.
"I'm telling you, without him, we don't win," Calipari said.
And that was reason for Poythress to smile.
He met the media Saturday wearing a McDonald's All-American shirt, a souvenir from his selection to that team last season. Against the Tigers, he'd played like one, and even in his postgame interviews, the typically terse Poythress opened up a little.
A few times, he even smiled.
"People just think I'm a stone-faced kind of guy," Poythress said. "I don't know where that came from. But it's all good."