LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Kentucky senior Alex Poythress showed what’s possible when his mind, body and will are working together. Coach John Calipari hopes to see that imposing combination more often as the forward keeps making his way back from a devastating knee injury.
Poythress had 21 points and 13 rebounds, Jamal Murray scored 16 and No. 5 Kentucky pulled away from Eastern Kentucky 88-67 Wednesday night to bounce back from last week’s first loss at UCLA.
The Wildcats (8-1) succeeded with improved and dominant inside play against the smaller Colonels. Kentucky scored its first 32 points in the paint and 58 overall, outrebounded EKU 50-25 and made timely baskets before pulling away late.
Poythress’ third double-double this season led the way and featured a baseline drive and two-handed dunk for an 80-65 lead with 4:14 remaining. He finished one point shy of his career best and matched another on the boards.
“I’m just trying to play hard every time I’m out there,” said Poythress, who sustained a season-ending left anterior cruciate ligament last December. “I’m just trying to give 100 percent out there and bring energy.”
Poythress’ effort pleased Calipari, who has waited a long time to see it.
“I want the kid to be the best player in the country. He’s capable of that,” the coach said. “He was a couple of shots from a near-perfect game.”
Marcus Lee added 11 points and eight rebounds, while Skal Labissiere and Isaiah Briscoe each added 10 for the Wildcats.
Javontae Hawkins scored 19 points for EKU (7-3), which entered as one of the nation’s best 3-point shooting teams (44 percent) but made 5 of 18 from behind the arc (28 percent).
For first-year Colonels coach Dan McHale, a former student manager under Kentucky coach Tubby Smith from 1998-2001, the game was a bittersweet homecoming.
His team entered with many offensive strengths including perimeter shooting, but those 3-point shots didn’t fall in a 1-for-8 first half that only improved slightly after the break. The Colonels shot 40 percent from the field overall.
EKU pushed the tempo at times and even got within 71-63 late before Kentucky outscored the Colonels 17-4 down the stretch to seal it.
“To be down eight at the under-eight (minute) timeout, I would have taken it,” McHale said. “We just couldn’t get consecutive stops back together and couldn’t keep them off the offensive glass.”
Kentucky was much better in hitting 35 of 64 overall (55 percent), a huge improvement from its 38-percent effort at UCLA. Then again, those impressive numbers were expected given the Wildcats’ height advantage that the 6-foot-11 Labissiere, 6-9 Lee and 6-8 Poythress provided and frequently exploited underneath.
Especially Poythress, whom McHale said “is a pro when he wants to be. When that motor clicks and when he starts playing at the speed he did tonight, he’s very tough to guard.”
Eastern Kentucky: Jarelle Reischel, who entered the game ranked third nationally with 65 made free throws on 80 attempts (which ranked fourth), made all five attempts in the first half and finished with 12 points. … Hawkins fell to the floor with a left calf cramp but limped off the floor with eight minutes left.
Kentucky: The Wildcats made 18 assists but committed 17 turnovers. … Briscoe and EKU’s Reischel each received offsetting unsportsmanlike technical fouls in the first half. … Charles Matthews had seven points.
Eastern Kentucky visits Marshall on Saturday.
Kentucky hosts Arizona State on Saturday.
THIS SEAT IS TAKEN
McHale’s return to Rupp Arena included an homage to late longtime Kentucky equipment manager Bill Keightley, whom he worked under as a student manager. The EKU coach kept the first chair next on the scorer’s table empty to honor his onetime mentor, who worked for the Wildcats for 48 years.