John Clay

John Clay: Skal Labissiere makes a play to be Kentucky basketball’s Comeback Kid

Before all the fouls and all the free throws and all the sloppiness that mucked up the end of No. 22 Kentucky’s 88-79 win over Florida on Tuesday night at the O’Connell Center, there was Skal Labissiere, impact player.

That’s right, Skal Labissiere. You remember him. The No. 1 college prospect in all the land, according to Rivals, when the 6-foot-11 center from Haiti arrived on the UK campus full of fanfare, hope and a silky smooth jump shot.

Four months later, special Skal was silent Skal, an afterthought on the bench, down to single-digit minutes the last two games, pushed around on the floor, where he had a tendency to total more fouls than field goals.

Then Tuesday night, out of the blue, Skal Labissiere’s name showed up in Kentucky’s starting lineup. And then Labissiere showed up on the floor.

He scored baskets. He grabbed rebounds. He put his long, thin body on people. He picked-and-popped as a tandem with point guard Tyler Ulis. By night’s end, Labissiere had scored 11 points and grabbed a career-high eight rebounds, and Kentucky had a huge victory on the road.

“Skal was terrific,” said John Calipari, the head coach. “He only played 15 minutes, but if he can give us 15, 20 minutes like that, we’re pretty good.”

In fact, Tuesday night was something of a back-to-the-beginning for the Cats, who in this final week of the regular season started the same center who opened the beginning of the season.

“It meant a lot,” said Labissiere of his first start since the Ohio State game on Dec. 19. “I found out (Monday) I was starting. I had a pretty good practice, and Coach Cal told me I was going to start. I just had to get myself ready for it, and that’s what I did.”

Did Calipari relay any instructions?

“He just told me to go out and play,” said Labissiere.

Was this the famous tweak that Calipari talked about Monday?

“No,” said the forward. “We can’t answer that question.”

Still, Kentucky did answer some questions in this final game at the O-Dome before it undergoes a $64.5 million renovation. Yes, the Cats can win a game on the road. Yes, the Cats are capable of getting production out of their frontcourt. Yes, the Cats can do the one thing the head coach wants them to do in March.

“Play with confidence,” Calipari said.

Not that Labissiere had any real reason to play with confidence. And yet, if you can’t root for this freshman as a comeback story, well, you must be a fan of some other team. Labissiere is one of the nicest, kindest, most soft-spoken kids you would ever want to meet. Think kind soul, think Skal.

Problem is, that doesn’t always cut it on the basketball floor, where pushing and shoving and toughness often rule. It’s a lesson Labissiere has had to learn the hard way, more in practice than on the playing floor.

“Every single day I practice and work on it,” Labissiere said. “I just have to go out there and do it. That’s basically it.”

Expectations are a double-edged sword, of course. It cannot be the easiest thing in the world for a teenager to go from being listed near the top of mock NBA Drafts in October to riding the bench in February. Physical toughness is one thing, mental toughness is another.

Yet Calipari’s talk of a “tweak” and Labissiere in the starting lineup offered a fresh start. And Skal took advantage. He doesn’t have to be the all-world center some scouts expected. But Labissiere can provide the post presence this team has lacked on a consistent basis.

“It’s a huge confidence-booster,” Labissiere said of his play. “We don’t have a long season left; it’s almost tournament time. Hopefully, I can do that in tournament time.”

“If he can do that every game, we’ll love that,” said teammate Alex Poythress. “But from here on out, he’s just got to build on it. I think he can.”

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