Only one question seemed to matter after Kentucky defeated Alabama 86-63 in the Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinals Saturday: How hot was Wenyen Gabriel?
“You could never touch him, that’s how hot he was,” Quade Green said. “It might burn you.”
Kevin Knox, whose struggling performance made Gabriel’s starburst well-timed, quoted his teammate’s comment about the ease with which shot after shot swished.
“Seven-for-seven, that was crazy,” Knox said of Gabriel’s shooting from three-point range. “He said it was like throwing a rock in the ocean.”
Gabriel’s seven three-pointers more than doubled his previous career high (three) and came within one of the SEC Tournament record shared by six players and was the most by a UK player in John Calipari’s nine seasons as coach.
“I don’t know if you get much hotter,” Gabriel said. “I couldn’t miss.”
Players spoke of how Gabriel’s shooting, which was part of a season-high 12 threes by Kentucky, could be most helpful going forward. It spreads out defenses, giving UK’s big men more room to operate.
But Calipari made another shooting-gallery performance by any UK player sound unrealistic. “Wenyen was unbelievable,” he said.
By stifling another opponent, Kentucky rolled into the SEC Tournament finals Sunday. UK will be seeking its fourth straight SEC Tournament championship, and sixth in John Calipari’s nine seasons as coach.
It was the second straight day that Kentucky put the big chill on the high-flying opponent.
The Tide came into the game having outscored No. 1-seed Auburn 50-22 in the second half Friday.
And after Alabama defeated his team Thursday, Texas A&M Coach Billy Kennedy said, “That’s the best they’ve played, that I’ve seen them in the last few weeks.”
Freshman Collin Sexton led the way, averaging 29 points in those games.
But much as UK stifled Georgia star Yante Maten on Friday, Sexton never got in gear. He made six of 14 shots and scored 21 points.
“He had 21,” Knox said. “but it was a real hard 21.”
The victory also breathed life into something Green said after UK beat Georgia. “Defense,” he said, “that is the key to every postseason game.”
Rather than Sexton, the hottest player in this game was Gabriel, whose 23 points equaled his career high.
Gabriel made five three-pointers in the second half, none bigger than one with 4:59 left. Sixteen seconds earlier, a three-point play by John Petty reduced UK’s lead to 65-56. That marked the first time Alabama had been within single digits since 37 seconds remained in the first half.
Gabriel calmed the growing unease among UK fans in Scottrade Center by hitting a three-pointer from the right wing. Interestingly, Knox, UK’s leading scorer, passed to Gabriel rather than take a contested shot in the lane.
“We just new he was hot,” Knox said. “We were going to keep feeding him because he’s hot.”
The shooting display continued a hot streak for Gabriel, who had made eight of 16 shots (five of 10 from three-point range) in the three most recent games. His seven three-pointers against Alabama were one more than he made from Jan. 9 through Feb. 17, when he made only six of 34 shots from beyond the arc).
“It’s been a buildup,” he said. “I’ve been getting up shots in the gym. And it’s March, and I have a different level of focus.”
Kentucky led 29-19 at halftime. That marked the second straight game and day that Alabama trailed by 10 at the break. In Friday’s quarterfinals, the Tide rallied from a 41-31 deficit to beat Auburn 81-63.
Kentucky’s defense seemed to make another second-half Alabama rally unlikely. UK limited Alabama to 7-for-23 shooting in the first half. Overall, the Tide made only 37.9 percent of their shots.
Meanwhile, Kentucky shot with 64.3-percent accuracy. Only 66.7-percnt shooting against outmanned UIC has been better this season.
“Give Kentucky credit,” Alabama Coach Avery Johnson said. “They shot the lights out of it. Gabriel had a career night from behind the three-point line.”
Kentucky vs. Tennessee
What: SEC Tournament finals
Where: Scottrade Center in St. Louis
When: 1 p.m.
Radio: WLAP-AM 630, WBUL-FM 98.1
Records: Kentucky 23-10, Tennessee 25-7
Series: Kentucky leads 153-71
Last meeting: Tennessee won 61-59 on Feb. 6 in Lexington