By LARRY VAUGHT
ST. LOUIS — Wenyen Gabriel knew his phone was going to “blow up” with text messages.
But that was fine with him.
The sophomore went 7-for-7 from 3-point range and had 23 points in 25 minutes in Kentucky’s 86-63 Southeastern Conference Tournament semifinal win over Alabama that puts UK once again into Sunday’s title game. The Cats have won the last three SEC Tournament championships and changing the venue to St. Louis for the first time has done nothing to slow down UK.
“I know I’m going to get a lot of texts and stuff,” said Gabriel, who helped answer every Alabama challenge in the second half with a key shot of his own.
“Give Kentucky credit. They shot the lights out of it,” Alabama coach Avery Johnson said.
“Wenyen was unbelievable today,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said.
He was better than unbelievable. He never had a 3-point shot touch the rim. Every shot was pure.
“I think I was in the zone after probably my third three. Preparation today, (Jarred) Vanderbilt’s been off a little bit. The coach has been telling me everybody needs to give more here and there. I came in with more of a level of focus. I just let it fly. Teammates trusted in me, and shots fell today,” Gabriel, who also blocked three shots, said.
As good as Gabriel was, it was not a one-man show. Three other Cats — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (19 points, eight assists), P.J. Washington (14 points, eight rebounds) and Kevin Knox (11 points, two assists two steals) also were in double figures.
Kentucky was 12-for-18 from 3-point range and 27 of 42 overall from the field. It limited Alabama to 19 points in the first half — the fewest points a UK opponent has had in the first half al season. And the previous low was the 23 points Georgia had against UK Friday.
Calipari knows UK is not likely to sustain such a high level of 3-point shooting.
“If we make six or seven, we’re okay. But many games we made two or three and still won because we don’t play like the 3 ball is (everything). If it’s there, we’ll take it. It spaces the court,” Calipari said. “You have teams that must take 10 or 11 or 12 or they’re going to lose. We’re kind of the other way, and I kind of like it being that way.”
He also has to like the energy he’s seeing from his team after Jarred Vanderbilt injured an ankle or leg in practice Tuesday and has missed both games here. Players have seemed more relaxed but also more intense.
“We are just having fun and playing,” Washington, who had a monster dunk that brought UK fans here to their feet, said. “We know what we have to do and we are doing it.”
Calipari said not to discount the contributions that both sophomore Sacha Killeya-Jones and freshman Hamidou Diallo made. Diallo had nine points while Killeya-Jones had six points, five rebounds and two blocks. He was 3-for-3 from the field.
“Sacha, who hadn’t had the opportunity, has been playing behind some pretty good players, now his chance is there. And I’ll tell you, I’m watching him play, both on defense, offense, rebounding the ball. He’s fighting. He makes us different,” Calipari said.
“And Hami is coming around. He made some plays today, some 3’s.
“They’re all starting to come together. Twenty assists, 10 turnovers, big for us. We’re a young, inexperienced team to play in a game like that, especially when they were pressing in the end and still end up with 10 turnovers, pretty big deal.”
Kentucky shot 85 percent the second half when it was 16 of 19 from the field, including 8-for-9 from 3-point range.
“They got hot in the second half today and made a lot of 3’s. Sometimes you’ve just got to take your hats off to them. I don’t know if I’ve ever coached against a guy that’s got seven from the three-point line on any level (like Gabriel did),” Johnson said. “We cut the lead down to about nine or 10 points at one point. They kept us on our heels by making 3’s. And sometimes we were there in their faces, and sometimes we weren’t.
“We just didn’t have much offense. Our energy wasn’t at a high level of where we needed it to be in the first half to compete in this game.”