Fight or flight. That was the fork in the trail to the Final Four faced by Wenyen Gabriel.
Gabriel, who contributed the second double-double of his career to Kentucky’s 95-75 victory over Buffalo on Saturday, had a choice to make early in the game.
When asked to explain his 16 points and 12 rebounds, Gabriel cited a challenge from UK Coach John Calipari.
“Coach Cal challenged me a few times early in the game,” he said. “I had a few missed layups. All that stuff fueled me to go back in the game.”
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Challenges from Calipari?
“I went out early and missed a layup, boom, ‘What are you doing?’” Gabriel said of the one-sided sideline conversation. “He said, ‘You missed an assignment on defense.’ He’s saying ‘Fight or flight.’ He’s trying to claim I was scared. That I was trying to (board a) flight.
“I responded to that to show him what kind of player I was.”
Gabriel was the kind of player to grab five offensive rebounds, one shy of a season high. He also made three three-point shots, which aside from the 7-for-7 geyser against Alabama in the Southeastern Conference Tournament, equaled his most productive perimeter shooting of his career.
Calipari noticed, and saluted Gabriel as part of a celebration in the winning locker room.
“He came up to me and he told me in front of the team, ‘I’m proud of you,’” Gabriel said. “‘You conquered yourself today. You’re starting to prove the kind of player you are.’”
Calipari has guided six teams to the Final Four. Whether or not this team makes it seven, he expressed the feeling of satisfaction that this season has brought. As if anyone needs reminding, the least experienced team in college basketball history had just advanced to the South Region semifinals.
“My comment to the players after the game was . . . this has been the most rewarding season I’ve had in over 30 (years), or however many I’ve done this,” he said.
Calipari credited the resurgence of Hamidou Diallo and Gabriel’s rebound from a poor start in the game as reasons for feeling so good about 2017-18.
Teammates seemed to relish Diallo’s 22-point performance. It served as redemption for a player who went through a 4-for-20 shooting slump from three-point range at midseason.
“He definitely went through it,” Sacha Killeya-Jones said. “He has the type of mentality (where) he’s not going to let that affect him.”
When asked to explain the type of mentality he believed Diallo had, Killeya-Jones said, “He has a dog mentality. He’s not going to let anything get him down.”
Diallo acknowledged that his perseverance had been tested. It took time to make amends.
“It’s all a build-up,” he said. “You can’t be at rock bottom and think, boom, like that, you’re going to be on top.”
Buffalo Coach Nate Oats saluted Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who led UK with 27 points and six assists. In five postseason games, Gilgeous-Alexander has had a better than three-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio: 33 assists and 10 turnovers.
“I told the guys, there’s a reason this guy is projected to be a lottery pick,” Oats said. “He’s the best point guard we’ve seen all year.”
Of his players, Oats said, “They can usually take other guards out of it. . . . To me, Alexander makes them go.”
Oats said he apologized for saying on Friday that Calipari had whined about coaching freshmen.
“He said he didn’t take it the wrong way,” Oats said. “I’ve got a ton of respect for him.”
Oats said UK fans reacted to his reference to Calipari whining.
“I don’t know why I chose that word,” he said. “Big Blue Nation certainly let me know about it. (I) don’t want them mad. They’re tweeting all day long.”