A true child of Dixie, Bam Adebayo loves his fried food.
“From the South, (I love) all the soul food,” the Little Washington, N.C., product said.
It tells you how much Kentucky’s 6-foot-10 center wants his freshman year to end on a high note that he has given up the foods he loves most.
“I’m putting more water and Gatorade, more greens and fruits in my diet,” Adebayo said. “I’ve lost 10 pounds. I feel like I can jump higher, am lighter on my feet now.”
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For Kentucky’s hopes of ending the 2016-17 men’s basketball season with a memorable tournament run, less Adebayo is definitely more.
With Adebayo turning in his second straight double-double, No. 11 Kentucky (24-5, 14-2 Southeastern Conference) avenged a 22-point loss to No. 13 Florida (23-6, 13-3) on Feb. 4 with a 76-66 victory Saturday before an electric crowd of 24,431 in Rupp Arena.
Kentucky added a second high-level win to its early-season victory over North Carolina behind another thermonuclear scoring explosion from Malik Monk.
The freshman guard scored 30 of his 33 points after halftime as UK rallied from a 52-44 second-half deficit to take a giant step toward claiming the SEC regular-season championship.
Playing without starting point guard De’Aaron Fox (bruised knee), Kentucky got “true grit” contributions from home-state seniors Derek Willis (nine rebounds) and Dominique Hawkins (six rebounds, four assists, two steals) plus a steady game from sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe (nine points, eight boards).
Yet, for UK’s hopes of earning its fifth Final Four trip in the past seven seasons, the best news was another Bam breakthrough.
After scoring 22 points and snaring a career-high 15 rebounds in UK’s road victory at Missouri Tuesday, Adebayo came back with 18 points and another 15 boards to help the Wildcats end Florida’s nine-game winning streak.
Adebayo helped the Cats produce a remarkable 43-rebound swing from its loss at Florida. In Gainesville, the Gators won the battle of the boards 54-29. In Rupp, Kentucky claimed the rebounding edge 48-30.
In his postgame news conference, Florida Coach Michael White explored several variables that could explain such a radical turn in the rebounding from one game to the next between the same teams.
“It could just be Bam Adebayo is three weeks older than he was,” White said.
After having only three double-digit rebounding games in Kentucky’s first 25 contests, Adebayo has three in UK’s last four games — and had eight in the other contest (Georgia).
Adebayo says his improved activity around the glass owes much to his weight loss. UK assistant Kenny Payne has had much to do with creating the shrinking Bam, Adebayo said, due to a regimen of pre-practice conditioning drills.
“KP running us pre-practice, (the weight) just fell off,” Adebayo said. “Then I started eating right, eating healthier. It’s been good for me.”
Monk said Kentucky Coach John Calipari deserves some credit for Adebayo’s surging production on the glass, too.
After pleading with UK’s front court players early in the season to rebound with both hands, Monk said Calipari started having the whole Wildcats team run anytime Adebayo failed to do that in practice.
So, Bam, has peer pressure from teammates not wanting extra running created a more motivated, two-handed rebounder?
“That’s been a good factor for us,” Adebayo said, flashing a big smile. “I might just slip up (and rebound with one hand) ‘accidentally’ to help everybody get in shape.”
Now that he’s gone healthy, Adebayo admits he finds himself longing for the fried foods he’s given up — and sugar cookies from a favorite place.
With only two regular-season games left, the good news for Cats fans is Bam plans to resist his cravings.
“This healthy diet is working for me,” Adebayo said, smiling. “The greens, the fruits, I’m staying with it.”
Vanderbilt at No. 11 Kentucky
9 p.m. Tuesday (ESPN)