John Clay

John Clay: Skal Labissiere already shining for Cats

Skal Labissiere finding his way

Kentucky center Skal Labissiere talks about trying to improve after his 16 points and seven rebounds in win over Boston U.
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Kentucky center Skal Labissiere talks about trying to improve after his 16 points and seven rebounds in win over Boston U.

As his coach keeps reminding both him and us, he needs to fight more. And he needs to get stronger. And he’s still figuring it all out. And with all that in mind, one of these days, Skal Labissiere is going to develop into something special.

He’s pretty good now. The 6-foot-11 freshman from Haiti scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds Tuesday night as Kentucky wore down Boston University 82-62 in Rupp Arena.

Labissiere scored 11 of those points in the first half, making five of his 10 shots. He also had five rebounds and a blocked shot over the first 20 minutes. On the night, he ended up making seven of his 13 shots on the offensive end and blocked three shots on the defensive end.

“He really hurt us,” said Boston Coach Joe Jones. “He reminds me of Sam Perkins. Has a soft touch around the rim. Hard to guard. Goes to the offensive glass. I think his upside is phenomenal. He’s got a chance to be a really good player at the next level.”

That’s the thing. You know Labissiere can and will get better. He’s silky smooth around the basket. His moves are fluid. That’s when Labissiere can move around the basket. Too often he gets bodied out of the way — at least for John Calipari’s liking — or loses a rebound he should have grabbed. He doesn’t always hold his position. Those things will come.

You can say the same thing about Labissiere’s entire team. The Cats aren’t playing poorly right now, but they are a long way from full throttle. Spurts carried them past the Terriers, who ran out of gas in the second half. The guess here is that Calipari isn’t looking for spurts. He wants consistency.

Despite the bump up to the No. 1 spot in Monday’s AP poll, Kentucky was coming off a less-than-inspiring win over Wright State last Friday that Calipari labeled as a “step back.” Point guard Tyler Ulis went a step beyond that, calling the performance “two steps back.”

Meanwhile, it was a return Rupp Arena appearance for the Terriers, who gave that No. 1-ranked Kentucky team all it could handle in the first half, down just 40-35 at intermission. The 2014-15 Cats took control in the second half and pulled away for an 89-65 victory.

Boston came into the game averaging 27 three-point attempts per game. More important, the Terriers were hitting 41.7 percent of those threes. In the first half, Boston made five of 15 threes. And they trailed 40-33 at the half, just two points off last year’s intermission score.

The visitors took a 32-31 lead when guard John Papale score on a reverse layup with 3:38 left in the first half. But Kentucky scored the final six points of the first half to carry a 40-33 lead into the locker room at halftime.

Kentucky shot 50 percent in the first half, but the Cats were 2-for-11 from three-point range. UK also missed six of its 10 free throw attempts in the first 20 minutes.

Kentucky was better the second half. It stretched the lead to 12 at 49-37. Then the home team was up 16 at 82-56. The Cats pretty much coasted home from there.

Alex Poythress went beast mode for a good stretch in the second half, holding his own personal dunk party. The 6-8 senior looked as close to 100 percent after last season’s ACL injury as he has looked this season.

Ulis was again calm, cool and efficient. Jamal Murray is still a little loose with the basketball, but he can be creative. Unlike Friday night, Isaiah Briscoe wasn’t chewing on his mouthguard. Like most of the season to date, Briscoe was making steals and creating defensive havoc.

As for what may be the most important piece of the puzzle?

“Skal did some good stuff,” Calipari said. “He’s coming, but he’s got some things he’s got to do.”

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