Of the positive flashes shown by UK freshman Skal Labissiere in Thursday night’s victory over Arkansas, one of the brightest came in a moment of defeat.
Labissiere, clearly exhausted, had just been beaten down low. As he labored back down the court on defense, the 6-foot-11 forward shot a quick glance at the Wildcats’ bench and threw one arm in the air.
It was time to come out, Skal was saying.
It was the first time he’d done it all season, UK Coach John Calipari said the next day.
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“When he is tired, he just stops,” Calipari said Friday. “Can’t catch a ball, can’t rebound a ball. Can’t fight. He cannot be in the game tired. He’s now learning, ‘Just take myself out. Why fight it, and look foolish, and take away my own confidence?’ Just come out.’
“Which is what he did in that game.”
The freshened freshman managed to play 20 minutes in Thursday’s 80-66 victory, turning in his most impressive performance in weeks. Labissiere finished with 11 points, three blocked shots and three rebounds in his most court time since Dec. 19, showing awareness on the defensive end and fight on the boards that has been missing for most of the season.
There was more bounce in his step — evidenced by a couple of electric dunks — and more confidence all around.
“He’s got work to do,” Calipari said. “There’s no question, he’s gotta keep going. But he’s worked in practice. He’s trying. He played 20 minutes in that game — that’s about the max right now he can play with the condition that he has. And he’s working on it.
“Now, he’s playing. ‘I make a shot, I grab a rebound, I’m exhausted. Get me out.’ Boom. ‘All right, you ready to go back?’ He’s learning.”
Mr. Basketball returns
Vanderbilt freshman Camron Justice is no stranger to Rupp Arena.
The reigning Kentucky Mr. Basketball led Knott County Central to the Sweet Sixteen in Rupp in each of his four high school seasons. He finished his career with 3,588 points, the third-most in state history.
Justice returns to town Saturday coming off his highest-scoring game of the season.
In Wednesday night’s 88-74 victory over Tennessee, the 6-foot-3 guard scored 12 points in 15 minutes, going 4-for-7 from three-point range.
Justice started the season firmly entrenched in Vandy’s rotation before missing five games in December with a groin injury. He’s played somewhat sparingly since his return against Western Michigan on Dec. 30, but his last outing could be a sign that he’s rounding back into form.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Commodores Coach Kevin Stallings said after Wednesday’s game. “Cam Justice is a bona fide, terrific shooter. He just hasn’t had as much of a chance lately and hasn’t shot as many lately, but that kid can really shoot the basketball.”
Justice is averaging 4.3 points in 12.6 minutes and shooting 40.6 percent from three-point range this season.
What about Wynyard?
The struggles of veteran post players Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress against Arkansas left some UK fans wondering about the much-talked-about-but-not-yet-seen mid-season addition to the Wildcats.
Freshman power forward Tai Wynyard was in Fayetteville on Thursday night, but there was no sign that he would be leaving his spot on the end of the UK bench, even when Calipari emptied it in the game’s final moments.
Calipari said Friday that if players like Lee and Poythress continue to struggle, others will get a chance. But there was no indication Wynyard is close to making his debut.
“Tai is still getting in shape, so ...” Calipari said, trailing off.
▪ Junior guard Dominique Hawkins was also in Fayetteville on Thursday night, and he participated in the pregame layup line with the Wildcats. He did not play, however, missing his fifth straight contest with a sprained ankle. Calipari said during Friday’s press conference that he had not yet seen Hawkins that day and did not know about his status for Saturday’s game.
▪ Mark Jones, Dick Vitale and sideline reporter Kaylee Hartung are scheduled to call Saturday’s game for ESPN. Vitale expressed doubts Thursday night on social media about getting to the game on time due to the wintry conditions, but he was safe in his Lexington hotel room by Friday afternoon. “What a blizzard in Lexington. Be safe,” he told his Twitter followers.