For much of this season, UK has been among the worst three-point shooting teams in college basketball.
Part of that is due to UK ranking near the bottom in three-point attempts, but there’s really been no question this was a weakness since Game 1.
Sure, UK has had some hot-shooting days, but few guys have been able to consistently hit a three from game to game.
That wasn’t a problem last year when UK had Derek Willis. The senior forward hit a three in 12 of UK’s final 14 games last year, which was when the Cats began their big run by winning 14 straight before losing in the Elite Eight. That included multiple threes in six of the Cats’ final eight games.
Having someone that can knock down even one three every game from here on out would be huge for a UK team that has plenty of guys who can do damage in the paint, but that’s hard to do when opponents load up and dare you to shoot from deep.
That’s been a problem for UK for far too many games this season, but it’s getting better as we get closer to the NCAA Tournament.
That’s because Wenyen Gabriel is stepping up to the task, just as his coach asked him to back in December.
“He’s playing for a coach that says if you are open, shoot it every single time,” said Calipari. “Play like Derek Willis.”
Entering Saturday’s SEC Tournament clash with Alabama, Gabriel had hit a three in six-straight games.
In an ironic twist, Gabriel made it seven in a row by hitting — you guessed it — seven-straight three pointers in Saturday’s win over Alabama, which was a career high.
Gabriel tied his career high with 23 points. The 7-of-7 performance set UK school records and SEC Tournament records for most threes made without a miss.
“It felt like throwing a rock in the ocean,” Gabriel said after the game.
Previously, UK had four players make 5-of-5 threes in a game; Ramel Bradley, Keith Bogans, Tayshaun Prince and Jamal Mashburn, and just four players had previously made 5-of-5 threes in an SEC Tournament game.
Gabriel’s 87.5 field-goal percentage is tied for the second-best mark in an SEC Tournament game in school history (minimum six attempts). The last Wildcat to do it was Alex Poythress, who was also 7-of-8 against Alabama in 2016. He’s hit multiple threes in both SEC Tournament games thus far, and UK won both by an average of 18 points.
Oh, and did we mention Gabriel tied his career high for blocks with three today?
One of the underrated aspects of Willis’ game that helped UK win 14 straight and make it to the Elite Eight was his ability to protect the rim. Over his final nine games, Willis averaged 2.0 blocks per game.
Gabriel isn’t quite there yet, but he is averaging a block per game over his last 13 contests.
But there’s no question the offense is where Gabriel has taken himself, and his team, to another level.
So, what exactly led to this masterful performance?
Simple. Gabriel knew his team needed him to step up when Jarred Vanderbilt went out with his latest injury.
“I think I was in the zone after probably my third three. Preparation today, Vanderbilt’s been off a little bit,” said Gabriel. “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.”
And how exactly did Alabama let a guy hit seven-straight three-pointers, several of which were uncontested?
Because he was playing the 5, and that makes him much harder to guard on the perimeter while also spacing the floor.
“Well, what’s happened is with Wenyen playing as one of five guys, we now have four or five three-point shooters,” said Calipari. “So he can just space the court, and the guy guarding him is usually a bigger guy, and he’s not going to go out there, and that’s what happened today. He was basically at the five. He’s not a five, obviously. But that’s what we put him at because of his length.”
If Gabriel can start hitting a few threes while blocking a shot or two each game, it can make a world of difference for a team that’s felt close, but not quite ready to make a run in March.