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Sports Notes: Calipari breathed sigh of relief after surviving latest Poythress injury scare

By Glenn Osborne
KyForward sports editor

For John Calipari, the key moment in Kentucky’s 72-58 win over Bobby Hurley’s Arizona State team Saturday came just before the start of the second half.

Senior forward Alex Poythress had gone out of the game with what ESPN’s game announcers were calling a hyper-extended right knee. They expressed skepticism about whether he would return in the second half and that maybe, looking at the big picture, Kentucky’s training staff would hold him out. It was just one year, almost to the day, that he had suffered a season-ending injury to his left knee.

Then Calipari spotted the team’s strongest inside presence retake the floor.

With freshman Skal Labissiere continuing to struggle to score and rebound, John Calipari is relying on Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress to provide an inside presence (UK Athletics Photo)

With freshman Skal Labissiere continuing to struggle to score and rebound, John Calipari is relying on Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress to provide an inside presence (UK Athletics Photo)

“Then I saw him walking out at halftime,” Calipari said. “I said, ‘Are you going to play?’ He says, ‘Yeah I’m going to’ — I’m like, wow. And then I said, OK, we can do this.”

With freshman Skal Labissiere missing in action again (no points, no rebounds, five fouls in 13 minutes of “action”), Calipari wasn’t liking his chances against the Sun Devils with Poythress out and the three-ball not falling.

“We’re just — we’re the most inexperienced team in the country, and it shows,” Calipari said. “I mean, we could lose the next three, next five, next — I mean, at halftime did you all think, if they don’t get Alex back, they have no chance of winning this game? Raise your hand. Is anybody with me on that?”

In 19 minutes of play, Poythress would put up 10 points and grab six rebounds, converting all three of his field goal attempts. The second half story, through, was three-point shooting, particularly from freshman Isaiah Briscoe, who scored nine points in a row at one point. He sparked UK’s second-half shooting binge with a three that halted a string of 11 Wildcat misses in 12 tries.

Kentucky converted half of its 10 attempts from long range in the second half.

Still, heads continue to be scratched over the lack of production from Labissiere, who has been projected as the top pick in next year’s NBA Draft.

“You know, I love Skal. Skal is going to be good,” Calipari said. “If you think it’s tough on you to watch it, think about, I’m watching it, too. And I want so bad for him to play well. We were running plays for him to shoot jumpers later and he wouldn’t shoot them. Now we’ve got a great — the kids got two days off … and then we start up Monday. Monday, Tuesday, individual work on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday practice here, travel to New York, play Ohio State, then go back, we get out of there for Christmas. Everybody is traveling from New York home. We’ll spend three days at home and then come back and get ready.”

It comes as no surprise to Calipari that his big man from Haiti struggles against better competition and more experienced players. He is still learning the game. He is still averaging an acceptable 10 points a game, but just 3.5 rebounds per contest.

“You understand he came from Haiti,” Calipari added. “He played basketball for a year and a half and then he played church league for two years. He’s never been through any of this. This is all new to him. Now, he played in a couple games that were more like pickup games. He made some jumpers. He ran up and down. See, he’s playing against men now. The kid he went against was a senior and just bulldozed him, and he couldn’t play against a man. Well, this is all part of it.”

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Kentucky plays just three games in the next 19 days, thanks to exams and holidays. After traveling to New York to take on Ohio State in the CBS Sports Classic at the Barclays Center, the Cats return home to play Louisville on CBS the day after Christmas. Then comes the SEC opener on Jan. 2 when Mississippi comes to Rupp Arena for a 7 p.m. contest on the SEC Network.

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It was no surprise when the National Soccer Coaches Association of America announced recently that Kentucky’s Callum Irving was the nation’s top goalkeeper in 2015. The senior was the lone goalkeeper on the All-America first team, becoming the first Wildcat to be so honored.

He is also UK’s first two-time NSCAA All-American after earning third team honors last year. Barry Rice was a multiple-times All-American between 2008-09, but was only honored by the NSCAA in 2009, according the UK’s sports information office.

Irving led Kentucky to an undefeated run through the 2015 conference season, earning UK’s initial Conference USA Championship. He allowed just one goal in eight league matches and finished his career as the program leader in shutouts (27) and goals-against average (minimum 2,500 minutes – 0.86).

“I love this place,” Irving said. “I came in as a freshman and it didn’t quite go exactly as I had planned. Everyone comes in with a thought of how they want it to go, and it went the exact opposite of that. The coaching staff had a lot of faith in me still, as well as my teammates.

“I kind of found my place here and found my home. Over the past three years, I can see where we built it from and see that I had an impact on it. I just feel really lucky to be here the past four years. I have enjoyed my time, and I think I will be following UK men’s soccer forever. It is my family now.”

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Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence will give up his final season of collegiate eligibility and enter the 2016 National Football League (NFL) draft.

The Ohio State transfer finished fourth in voting for the STATS FCS Defensive Player of the Year Award. He was also the 2015 OVC Co-Defensive Player of the Year. He was was also selected to play in the Reese’s Senior Bowl in January.

Spence made an immediate impact, finishing the season ranked fourth nationally in tackles for a loss (2.0/game), fifth in sacks (1.05/game) and 22nd in forced fumbles per game (0.27).

“After much thought and careful consideration, I have decided that it’s time to turn the page and write the next chapter in my life,” said Spence. “I will be entering the 2016 NFL draft to pursue my life-long dream of playing professional football. I hope to someday use my NFL career as a platform to inspire others and bring positive changes to the community.”

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Kyvin Goodin-Rogers, who recently announced her decision to leave Kentucky, will move to Western Kentucky.

Goodin-Rogers appeared in 39 games with 15 starts during her time with the Wildcats after missing her freshman season due to health reasons in 2013-14. The Lebanon, Ky., native averaged 4.2 points and 2.9 rebounds per game for Kentucky while knocking down three-pointers at a 35.4 percent (28-of-79) clip.

Goodin-Rogers is the daughter of Kiyonta Goodin and Tick Rogers, the former Louisville star who captured Kentucky’s Mr. Basketball honors in 1992. She played her AAU basketball with Kentucky Premier, the same program that helped to produce current Lady Toppers Jalynn McClain and Ivy Brown.

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