In a game where up became down and down became up, freshman Wenyen Gabriel and senior Derek Willis fittingly starred for Kentucky.
Gabriel and Willis had been considered a two-man weak link for UK. Then the pair became a binary star system in an 88-81 victory at Mississippi State Tuesday.
The two combined to make 10 of 11 shots, score 26 points and grab 13 rebounds. Suddenly, UK’s “four-man” combo went from a position opponents looked to exploit to the place the Cats saluted.
With the guard trio of De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Isaiah Briscoe an undisputed team strength and Bam Adebayo’s presence in the post growing, the emergence of Gabriel-Willis put thoughts in UK Coach John Calipari’s mind.
“We all know if (Gabriel) and Derek do what they did ...,” Calipari said, off. He did not need to say anymore.
Gabriel’s 13 points were the most he’d scored since Nov. 25 (15 against UT Martin). He equaled a season high of five baskets and posted a career-high three three-pointers.
“I think it was kind of a follow-up from last game,” said Gabriel of his six-point, 16-rebound starburst against Auburn on Saturday. “My confidence is up, and I’m kind of trying to use that momentum to push through the rest of the season.”
Gabriel’s rebounding against State was particularly striking. More than once, he mixed it up and grabbed rebounds in traffic.
Calipari cited a one-handed rebound that got away in the first half, which led to a lecture and Gabriel using both hands to secure the ball thereafter.
“That’s my will against his will,” Calipari said of the win-win for coach and player.
Willis, who scored two points in each of the last two games, scored 13 points, which was only his second double-digit total since Dec. 7.
For a second straight game, foul trouble complicated a Kentucky victory. The referees called 24 fouls against UK. That was the second-most all season (UK had 27 fouls in the Hofstra game).
The fouls also continued a trend. In the last four games, UK has averaged 21.3 fouls. Opponents have shot an average of 22.5 free throws.
“If they’re going to call (a lot of fouls), just make sure they’re on both of us,” Calipari said. “Don’t just make them on our team. Call them all on everybody.
“If you’re calling hand checks, call them all. If you make a call, then you better make that same call for my team. That’ll be my beef.”
Calipari put some of the onus on his players.
“If you know they’re calling it that way, then adjust,” he said. “You then need to be smart enough.”
Of the game at Mississippi State, Calipari said, “I’m yelling, ‘Don’t foul, don’t foul, don’t foul, give them space. Don’t foul.’”
Then UK players fouled.
Calipari put Fox’s five-for-nine free-throw shooting under the must-improve list.
“You can’t have your point guard going one for two, 0 for two (in clutch situations),” Calipari said. “You can’t have it. That guy’s got to make free throws.”
Calipari did not excuse Monk for getting a technical foul for hanging on the rim. The technical foul radically changed the tenor of the game.
“You chinned up,” Calipari said he told Monk. “He had to call the technical.”
Fox took a philosophical view of Monk making only five of 14 shots.
“Scorers have off nights,” Fox said. “It happened before. Then he came back with a big game. I’m not worried about it.
“I tell Malik, keep shooting. I would hope no Kentucky fan — nobody that has Kentucky across their chest — wants him to stop shooting. I’m definitely not telling him to stop shooting because it’s going to start falling.”
Monk’s poor shooting surprised Calipari.
“He had a great shoot-around today,” the UK coach said. “Maybe one of the best shoot-arounds I’ve seen. And that’s really unusual.”
Howland a believer
Before the game, Mississippi State Coach Ben Howland spoke highly of UK’s potential.
“They’re going to make a big, long run this year,” he said.
State lost its 14th straight against a ranked opponent. The program’s last victory in such a game was against No. 15 Arizona on Nov. 18, 2011.