STARKVILLE, Miss. – John Calipari spent the first half of Kentucky’s season bemoaning the struggles of its “four” spot, where Wenyen Gabriel and Derek Willis were often liabilities defensively and inconsistent offensively. But then a funny thing happened Tuesday night at Mississippi State: when Isaiah Briscoe and Malik Monk nearly shot the Wildcats out of the game, those fours came to the rescue.
Gabriel, a 6-foot-9 freshman, and Willis, a 6-9 senior, combined for 26 points and 13 rebounds, making 10 of 11 shots and 6 of 7 three-pointers in Kentucky’s 88-81 victory. When nearly the entire team found foul trouble in the first half, Willis took up the slack with all of his 13 points before intermission. When the Bulldogs cut an 18-point lead all the way down to three with 7:49 to go in the second half, Gabriel buried a 3-pointer to steady the Cats.
“If he and Derek will do what they did and Malik will give us (his normal production), then all of a sudden …” Calipari said, trailing off, not needing to complete the sentence. “That’s big.”
Although Willis had scored just four combined points in the previous two games, we’ve seen surges like this from him before – he averaged 9.7 points and 5.1 rebounds and shot 50 percent from 3-point range in SEC play last season. But Gabriel has taken his game to new heights in the last week.
He followed a 16-rebound game against Auburn with 13 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 assists and a steal in just 20 minutes at Mississippi State. Gabriel averaged just 5.4 points and 5.4 rebounds in his first 16 college games. He also started 4 of 20 from beyond the 3-point line before hitting 5 of 6 in the last two games.
“I guess you could say he’s out of his shell,” point guard De’Aaron Fox said. “We always knew he could shoot. When he’s really locked in, I don’t think there’s a time when he’s missed a shot in practice, honestly. Today, everybody saw it (but) we’ve seen it multiple times this year.
“When he has his confidence going, when he’s bouncing and talking on defense, everything just starts to flow. If he keeps doing what he’s doing, it’s tough for people to beat us.”
Gabriel, a rail-thin rookie, has always been a high-motor guy, but he’s at times struggled against older, more physical big men. Now he seems to be learning ways to negate the size and strength difference.
“In the first half, he grabbed a ball with one hand, it got away. ‘You’re out,’ ” Calipari said. “And then in the second half, he grabbed everything with two hands.”
Gabriel totaled 23 rebounds in the five games before Auburn. Now he has 24 boards in the last two games. He hadn’t scored more than six points in any of Kentucky’s last 10 games, then went for 13 in Starkville.
“I think it was a follow-up from last game,” Gabriel said. “My confidence has been picking up and I want to use that momentum to push forward the rest of the season.”