Men's Basketball

Kentucky basketball: Skal Labissiere almost perfect in 87-57 win over NJIT

Kentucky Wildcats forward Skal Labissiere (1) dunked as the University of Kentucky (UK) played New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, November 14, 2015. The is first half men's college basketball action.
Kentucky Wildcats forward Skal Labissiere (1) dunked as the University of Kentucky (UK) played New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., Saturday, November 14, 2015. The is first half men's college basketball action. Herald-Leader

With a game against Duke three days away, Kentucky freshman Skal Labissiere picked a good time to impersonate Christian Laettner.

Labissiere came close enough to Laettner's perfect shooting night in Duke's epic 1992 NCAA Tournament victory over UK. He missed only two shots leading Kentucky to a 87-57 victory over New Jersey Institute of Technology Saturday.

Labissiere made 10 of 12 shots and all six of his free throws en route to a career-high 26 points. That helped make irrelevant NJIT's ability to largely keep Kentucky's transition offense stabled. The Cats had eight fast-break points.

Labissiere was not born when Laettner didn't miss a shot against Kentucky.

"I saw the highlights of it," Labissiere said of Laettner against Kentucky.

When asked what he thought of Laettner's performance, Labissiere laughed and said, "He was really good."

UK Coach John Calipari said he's still trying to settle on what kind of player Labissiere can be.

"I've got to figure him out," Calipari said. "I haven't done a really good job."

Labissiere is different from former UK big man stars of recent vintage. Not Karl-Anthony Towns. Not Anthony Davis.

"You want to play him like Shaq," Calipari said, meaning a low-post anchor like Shaquille O'Neal. "He's not Shaq. He's never going to be Shaq."

Against NJIT, Labissiere got the ball at mid-lane or a bit further. "He can turn and shoot," Calipari said. "I don't know how you guard him. He's 7-foot, and he raises that thing up."

Calipari decided before the game to get a good look at what Labissiere could be capable of against a NJIT team that started no one taller than 6-foot-6.

"Coach Cal told me before the game they were going to me early," Labissiere said. "I just had to put myself in the right position to catch the ball and score."

An immediate goal will be to become more comfortable on the court, Labissiere said.

When told that 10-for-12 shooting suggested a high degree of comfort, Labissiere insisted he needed more time to mesh with teammates and learn to compete against college players.

Of course, Duke will deny Labissiere a size advantage.

"I think it's going to be a challenging game," Labissiere said of Tuesday's Kentucky-Duke game. "They're obviously good, too."

Kentucky needed time to impose its will on NJIT. The Cats seemed to settle in when Isaiah Briscoe, who did not play in the opener Friday, entered the game. Briscoe made up for lost time with 11 points and 12 rebounds.

With Briscoe as the spark, the Cats used stifling defense to complete a two-victory tuneup before taking on Duke.

NJIT, a quick and savvy team that started two seniors and three juniors, got to the rim repeatedly. But the Highlanders had trouble finishing.

"We proved today that we could have a pretty good defensive team," Calipari said.

Defense propelled Kentucky to a 36-28 halftime lead.

That seemed unlikely after the first six minutes. NJIT made its first six shots and seven of its first nine. The Highlanders led by as much as six and never trailed in that span.

Kentucky stared at its largest deficit — 21-15 — with 13:58 left.

NJIT made only four shots (in 18 attempts) the rest of the half.

Kentucky, which never trailed in the opening-game victory over Albany, took its first lead with 10:05 on a Tyler Ulis free throw.

Labissiere scored UK's next eight points. That helped the Cats ever-so-slowly widen its first-half lead to as much as nine points.

Labissiere threatened to pull off a Laettner. who made 10 of 10 shots from the floor and 10 of 10 free throws against Kentucky.

In the first half, Labissiere made all seven of his shots and all four of his free throws. He scored in a variety of ways: classic post-up moves, pretty turnaround jumpers from the baseline, reach-toward-the-ceiling catches of lobs to dunk.Labissiere's 18 first-half points doubled the nine he scored against Albany.

When a reporter suggested Labissiere looked like he wouldn't miss, the freshman demurred. "Oh, c'mon," he said with a soft smile.

Kentucky continued to snuff NJIT's offense in the second half. The Highlanders had only one basket in the first six minutes as UK pulled away.

Labissiere finally missed a shot: A short jumper with 19:09 left. But with the Cats' fast-break offense showing signs of life, it didn't matter. A fast-break basket by Willis off a lob from Briscoe excited the crowd and helped Kentucky expand its lead to 48-32 at the first TV timeout of the second half.

Derek Willis, who had a scoreless and shot-less eight-minute first half, was more productive coming off the bench in the second half. In one three-minute flurry, he hit three three-pointers. He started and finished fast-break opportunities on back-to-back possessions. He started the breaks by blocking a three-point shot and then a driving layup. He punctuated the breaks with three-point baskets.

Willis finished with 11 points.

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