There was a point in the first half of UK’s eventual victory over Wichita State last weekend that John Calipari had seen enough of Wenyen Gabriel.
Gabriel came off the bench in that game, as he has in the Wildcats’ past seven, and immediately started taking shots. Calipari criticized his first one — a 12-foot jumper — from the bench. Later in the half, the 6-foot-9 freshman missed two more jumpers in a span of about 90 seconds, leaving the UK coach doing his best Macaulay Culkin-in-Home Alone impersonation — hands on his cheeks, mouth agape.
Calipari finally turned to his assistant coaches and matter-of-factly said, “He can’t play in this game.” The next dead ball, Gabriel came out. He didn’t play in the second half.
That’s what the past few weeks have been like for Gabriel, who has started 23 games this season but has seen his role — and his impact — diminish recently.
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I’m supposed to knock down open shots. They didn’t fall in that game, but I’m still going to take open shots.
Wenyen Gabriel, UK freshman
Over the last eight games, Gabriel is just 1-for-19 from the field and has missed all six of his three-point attempts. In the regular season, he never played fewer than 10 minutes in a game. In five postseason games, he’s played 10 or more once.
Still, Gabriel has remained positive, and that might be the key to breaking out of his current funk.
While he didn’t play in the second half of Kentucky’s second-round victory over the Shockers on Sunday, Gabriel never checked out mentally. When the Cats made a big play, he was often the first one off the bench, cheering on his teammates. During timeout huddles, if Calipari wasn’t talking, Gabriel was there offering words of encouragement to the Cats who were actually on the court.
“That’s just a testament to who he is as a kid,” senior Mychal Mulder said. “He’s just a great young man. A great teammate. He’s really engaged as a basketball player. He understands that every day could be somebody else’s day.”
Gabriel has proven he can turn in big performances — that 23-point, eight-rebound outing against Louisiana State was only six weeks ago — and NCAA Tournament history is filled with big plays and big games from role players.
Calipari has clearly defined one for Gabriel.
“He’s already told me: Defend, rebound, bring energy,” Gabriel said. “I’m supposed to knock down open shots. They didn’t fall in that game, but I’m still going to take open shots. And just keep playing with high energy.”
Gabriel’s game flows through that energy. It’s what he’s always been known for, going back to his high school days at Wilbraham & Monson Academy in Massachusetts.
WMA Coach Mike Mannix has been watching his former player these past few games. His advice: Concentrate on what you do best. In Gabriel’s case, that’s playing with a high level of energy and getting rebounds, which lead to more possessions, which lead to more offensive opportunities for his teammates — and himself.
“I haven’t seen him stop playing hard,” Mannix said. “I think he’s playing really hard. Sometimes shots don’t fall, and that’s the way it goes. So, I would say, ‘Just keeping getting us those extra possessions. And between De’Aaron and Malik and Bam and some other guys, we’ll put the ball in the basket.’”
Gabriel’s teammates and his former high school coach talked about him Thursday in a tone that made it clear they’re rooting for him — almost willing him — to get back on track on the court.
Mulder said his young teammate’s “mental toughness” will allow him to weather this storm. Fellow freshman De’Aaron Fox said the other Wildcats have been feeding off of Gabriel’s positive energy during games and in the locker room. Mannix said he never saw that positivity wane during a high school career that included a losing record as a senior last season.
They all said that it’s making a difference now, and it’ll eventually translate to the court.
“Positivity is so important,” Mannix said. “Perspective, I think, is really important. ‘I might not be doing very well right now, or I might not be doing very much. But I know that the we is more important.’ He’s a kid that believes in that — that the group is greater than the individual.”
Wenyen Gabriel’s last nine games
at Texas A&M
vs. Northern Kentucky**
vs. Wichita State**