LEXINGTON, Ky. – If Kentucky basketball cuts down the nets in April, there’s a decent chance Dominique Hawkins will have had something important to do with it. Or maybe Derek Willis. Or Wenyen Gabriel. But definitely someone other than the obvious stars, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, Isaiah Briscoe and Bam Adebayo.
In three of the Wildcats’ last four games, some combination of those four future NBA draft picks has played poorly, gotten in foul trouble or been injured. Fifth-ranked Kentucky (17-2, 7-0 SEC) nevertheless won them all, because of the other guys.
“To be able to have a bench to step up big is very important to be able to win the national championship,” Hawkins said, “because everybody that goes in has to play their roles.”
He played his to perfection Saturday against 24th-ranked South Carolina. The senior guard has always been asked to be the sparkplug off the bench on teams loaded with bigger and more talented players, and he has always been ready for his sporadic opportunities.
When Fox turned an ankle in the first half against the Gamecocks, and when Briscoe couldn’t stop turning it over as his point guard replacement, coach John Calipari handed the offense over to Hawkins. He delivered 5 points, 7 assists, 3 rebounds and a steal, stabilizing the Cats after South Carolina had slashed a 17-point lead to three.
“Dom steps up every game he comes in,” said Monk, whose 27 points were also huge in an 85-69 win over the next-best team in the SEC. “As a senior, he knows what to do. Just happy for him to be on this team.”
For his career, Hawkins is averaging just 1.7 points per game, but whenever Kentucky needs him, he rises to the occasion. The 6-foot guard from Richmond, Ky., played the part of defensive stopper in the 2014 Sweet 16, Elite Eight and Final Four, helping the Cats reach the national title game by shutting down Louisville, Michigan and Wisconsin’s top scorer consecutively.
And when the rival Cardinals gave Kentucky a scare last season at Rupp Arena, Hawkins came off the bench to score a career-high 13 points – hitting 3 of 4 3-pointers, which is hardly his specialty – in a two-point victory.
“Being patient is the key,” said Hawkins, who has 82 career assists and just 25 turnovers. “I never know when my moment is going to come, and I’m always ready for it. Every time I get that moment, I usually do the most I can, try to do my best, and it usually works out well for me. So I probably should thank the man above that I’m always playing so well when it happens.”
The Cats and coach John Calipari should do the same. Having a combination of future lottery picks and capable role players like Hawkins and Willis is a luxury few teams in college basketball enjoy. Willis had 12 points, 7 rebounds and a jaw-dropping dunk off the bench Saturday.
“Dominique’s the best kid I’ve ever met in my life – top one or two kids I’ve ever met,” Willis said. “He plays hard, he plays for the state of Kentucky, just as I do, because we’re from Kentucky. It kind of holds a little different meaning to us.”
Gabriel is not homegrown and he is a former 5-star recruit, but he’s certainly more of a developmental prospect than his fellow starters. He got off to a slow start this season, looking very much like a project at times, but suddenly he’s on a tear.
The 6-9 Gabriel has averaged 10 points, 9.7 rebounds, 2 blocks and a steal the last three games and made 8 of 14 3-pointers. He hit just 4 of 20 from deep to start the season. Gabriel and Willis, Kentucky’s two “fours,” have combined for 49 points and 25 rebounds the last two games.
When games get ugly or out of sorts, when some of the stars don’t shine, the Cats can count on Willis, Gabriel or Hawkins to help take up the slack. And what does that do for this title-contending team?
“Boosts our confidence,” Monk said, “knowing we’re not going to play good every game and we can still come out with the win. We just gotta find a way to win and fight. That really boost our confidence.”