By LARRY VAUGHT
Well, maybe the infamous John Calipari reboot worked — for Wenyen Gabriel.
He had 11 points in the first six minutes and 16 points — one more than his career high — in the first half against LSU Saturday night. He finished with 23 points and eight rebounds but the Cats — a 23-point favorite — staggered to the finish and won only 92-85 over what most agree is the worst team in the SEC.
“Gabriel made some big plays for them tonight,” LSU coach Johnny Jones said. “He certainly was a big difference in the game. A really, good solid player for them and I thought he played a big role for them tonight.”
LSU made its last six of its last seven shots and hit 20 of 32 (62.5 percent) in the second half mainly by doing what almost every team has done lately against UK. The Tigers just drove the ball by defender after defender. Guard Antonio Blakeney, a one-time UK recruit, had a season-high 31 points.
Malik Monk had 23 points on 8-for-15 shooting but in 36 minutes he failed to get a rebound. De’Aaron Fox had 16 points on 7-for-13 shooting, six assists and four rebounds. Isaiah Briscoe added 14 points, six rebounds and three assists while Bam Adebayo had eight points and nine rebounds.
Still, it was not a confidence booster that UK needed after losing three of its last four games. LSU scored 38 points in the paint and got 23 points off 14 UK turnovers. And did I mention that Kentucky once had a 25-point lead. LSU had an 11-0 run in the second half and just seemed to finish the game with more energy and effort than UK.
“We knew going in it would be an extremely tough game for us. We knew Kentucky would come in and be focused. I thought they played a really good first half of basketball but our guys battled until the bitter end,” Jones said. “Unfortunately we could not overcome the first-half performance. They beat us to 50-50 balls in the first half and got second-chance points.”
The second half Jones felt his team competed and hustled better and also made some subtle changes on offense.
“We actually ran a couple of other plays and felt we got in a rhythm. We just wanted to find some gaps in the defense and attack them. When they rotated right, we made some pitch plays and some shots fell for us that did not fall in the first half,” Jones said.
True, but the problem for UK is that the Cats just continued to look out of sync. Kentucky coach John Calipari was pleading for his players to talk on defense and move the ball better on offense. Kentucky had 16 assists but still lacked the crisp ball movement it had earlier in the year.
Another problem continued to be bench scoring as UK got just eight points from Derek Willis, Dominique Hawkins, Mychal Mulder, Isaac Humphries and Tai Wynyard. They were a combined 3-for-12 from the field.