Already well on his way to his best basketball game as a Kentucky Wildcat, freshman Shai Gilgeous-Alexander switched into a dream matchup Friday afternoon.
With Gilgeous-Alexander dribbling near the halfcourt line, teammate Wenyen Gabriel ran up to set a screen on Louisville’s Quentin Snider, leaving 7-footer Anas Mahmoud to switch off on UK’s shifty point guard.
Gilgeous-Alexander took immediate advantage of the mismatch.
He drove into the lane with his right hand, went behind his back to the left — leaving Mahmoud completely off guard — and then scored on a sweet lefty layup to give the Cats a 30-point lead over their archrival with about 8:45 left to go in the beatdown.
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The Rupp Arena crowd went nuts, and the players on the nearby UK bench jumped out of their seats in celebration as Gilgeous-Alexander turned and gleefully shouted in their direction.
Then, he slipped and fell to the court.
It was pretty much his only miscue of the day, and John Calipari will gladly forgive the exuberance. The UK coach said after the Cats’ 90-61 victory that he wished all of his players played with such joy.
“What you see on his face is a smile. That kid smiles,” Calipari said. “I don’t know if it’s a Canadian thing. I don’t know what it is. But every Canadian that I’ve coached has fun and smiles and doesn’t feel the weight of the world on them. I’ve got some guys still feeling the weight of the world. You can see it. They miss a shot, they shrug their shoulders … but Shai, he just plays.”
He played very well — and put smiles on many faces — Friday.
The line next to Gilgeous-Alexander’s name on the final box score read: 24 points, five rebounds, four assists and three steals. He scored 17 of those points in the second half, helping UK pull away to its largest winning margin in this rivalry in 18 years.
After the game, Gilgeous-Alexander smiled at a question about why he smiles so much.
“I think it’s just a mindset,” he said. “You have to know you’re blessed, and a lot of kids don’t have the opportunities to do what you can do and be in the situation that you’re in. So you just have to think of it in that way.”
Before the game, during UK’s pregame warmups, all of the attention was on his hair.
Like many college freshmen on Christmas break, Gilgeous-Alexander got a fresh cut before heading back to campus. He first said that he “just wanted to get rid of it,” calling the old ’do “too much,” before later acknowledging that his mother thought it was getting to be too much, too.
“She thought I was looking homeless,” he said.
Whether it was the hair or not, Gilgeous-Alexander said he felt like he was due for a big game leading up to this one.
His previous career high as a Wildcat was 15 points — against Monmouth three weeks ago — and he was often an afterthought in this UK freshman class that also included such players as a Kevin Knox, Hamidou Diallo, Jarred Vanderbilt, PJ Washington, Nick Richards and Quade Green, all rated higher than Gilgeous-Alexander as high school prospects.
While Knox — the Cats’ leading scorer — fouled out with just eight points, his second-lowest total of the season, Gilgeous-Alexander stepped up on a big stage. That’s the way it should be with this squad, he said.
“I think on this team, we have so may weapons that, when a team tries to narrow in one night on one guy, you saw what happened tonight. So many other guys can do so many other things and beat you in other ways,” Gilgeous-Alexander said.
While most of his UK classmates were playing in the McDonald’s All-American Game and Jordan Brand Classic this spring, Gilgeous-Alexander was in Kentucky for the Derby Festival Classic.
He scored 29 points in that all-star game, earning most valuable player honors.
One of the spectators in the Freedom Hall crowd that night was Snider, the star of U of L’s victory over UK last season.
“I knew he could play. He’s a great guard,” Snider said. “I knew he was a great player from watching him there.”
And Gilgeous-Alexander knew his time would come for a similar performance in a UK uniform. It just happened to come in one of the Cats’ biggest games of the season.
“I’ve just been working, and when you work, good things will happen,” he said. “And it happened tonight.”
Georgia at No. 16 Kentucky
6 p.m. Sunday (ESPN)