There are games we’re going to remember from this season, and there are games we probably won’t; aside from a few highlights, today’s was the latter. After holding a comfortable 12-point lead at halftime, Kentucky sleepwalked through the first twelve minutes of the second half, letting Auburn cut the lead to four. Thankfully, the offense woke up and went to work, putting Auburn away by a final score of 92-72. Malik Monk led the way with 24 points and six assists, but you could argue the night really belonged to Wenyen Gabriel, who turned in a career-high 16 rebounds. In fact, that’s where we’ll start tonight’s recap.
1. Wenyen Gabriel came to play
Admit it: before tonight’s game, you wondered why John Calipari was letting Wenyen Gabriel start. The freshman forward showed us all why early on, hitting two threes, grabbing five rebounds, and blocking two shots in the first seven minutes. He finished with a career-high 16 rebounds, 6 points, 2 blocks, and 1 steal in 29 minutes. If you believe in the plus/minus efficiency numbers, Kentucky was +28 with Wenyen in this afternoon.
“Woo! Wow,” John Calipari said of Gabriel’s performance afterwards. “I told him, you’re a double-double if you just make a free throw. Just make some free throws and you’re a double-double.” (Wenyen missed all four.)
“It felt good,” Wenyen said of seeing his threes fall early. “It kind of felt like I am going back to how I was, how I was playing in high school. My confidence is coming back and I’m about to start playing more aggressive.”
Wenyen’s story was mentioned a lot on ESPN’s broadcast, so if you haven’t yet, check out my profile of him from last month. The more attention it gets, the better.
2. Kentucky’s defense wasn’t great, but the offense compensated
Until the last five minutes of the game, Kentucky’s defense was hot garbage. Auburn got the best of Kentucky in points in the paint (38-36) and second chance points (14-10), which showed Calipari this team’s got a long ways to go.
“They have got to get better,” Cal said. “At the end of the day, if we’re going to be anything, it will be because we’re a terrific defensive team. We’re not there yet. We’re just not.”
With the score close, Kentucky went on a 14-4 run, thanks in part to some thrilling plays by Malik Monk. Thankfully, the defense followed suit, not allowing Auburn to score a single point in the final 4:28 of the game.
3. Did you see these plays by Malik Monk?
This dunk will be on SportsCenter’s Top 10 tonight:
Malik Monk Soars for a MASSIVE Slam!! pic.twitter.com/6VsPdXucnN
– Wildcat Dunks (@WildcatDunks) January 14, 2017
This circus shot may be too:
— Scott Charlton (@Scott_Charlton) January 14, 2017
He topped off his big night with a photobomb, ala the 2014-15 team:
Speaking of Monk…
4. The threes were falling
Kentucky made 11-19 threes today, eight in the first half, for a season-high 57.9%. After a 1-9 three-point performance vs. Vandy, that was certainly nice to see. Monk had four of those threes, followed by Isaiah Briscoe and Gabriel with two a piece and De’Aaron Fox, Mychal Mulder, and Dominique Hawkins with one each.
5. Mychal Mulder had a good night
Mulder finished with 12 points, one shy of his career high, thanks in part to Calipari utilizing his four-guard lineup. Cal said he put Mulder in because he was frustrated that his bigs couldn’t stay in front of Auburn.
“I thought Mychal played well. That’s as good as Mychal has played. And it’s good, because we need that, like in this kind of game,” Cal said. “Understand, every team is doing the same thing to us. This is not hard. If you can’t move your feet and stay in front of everybody, either I have to play a zone or you can’t play. It’s, you know, that’s why I want Mychal, we went small lineup. Let Mychal try to stay in front then.”
6. “I don’t enjoy coaching the way I did today”
If you couldn’t tell from him pacing the sideline and screaming/yodeling at his players, Cal was not happy with his team for most of this game. Afterwards, he lamented that he basically had to hold his team’s hand throughout the game, calling out plays on each possession.
“I had to fight them the whole game. I don’t enjoy coaching the way I coached today. I should be a cheerleader. Obviously they are not ready for that. And what bothered me in the second half, as they made their run, I had to make a call every time down the floor. That’s not how you want to coach. You’re not going to be that team, if you have to — and if I have to do that, I will. But at some point, this team’s got to be empowered, and they are just — they are not ready.”
7. So. Many. Fouls.
For the second game in a row, it was hard for either team to get in a flow because of all the fouls that were called. Fifty-one fouls were called tonight, 31 on Auburn, 18 on Kentucky. Between this game and the last one at Vandy, 92 fouls have been called, which is absolutely absurd.
“Fouls are errors,” Bruce Pearl said. “We fouled them 31 times.”
Unfortunately, Kentucky didn’t capitalize enough on Auburn’s errors, making only 53% (17-32) of its free throws, an uncharacteristically bad mark. Calipari joked afterwards the poor free throw shooting was contagious.
“It’s contagious. We were in there arguing who missed the first couple. I said, first of all, Isaiah Briscoe said it was Wenyen. I said it wasn’t Wenyen. Someone missed before Wenyen, and I think it was Bam, and then Bam was saying it was somebody else. But what happens is you see a guy miss, and now you’re going to the line saying, ‘Geez, I can’t miss.'”
De’Aaron Fox fouled out with seven minutes left, and if you’re one for silver linings, the fact that Kentucky won by 20 with him on the bench for that long is a good one.
8. “We’re a month away”
We’re less than two months away from the SEC Tournament, which is good, because Calipari estimated his squad is a month away from what they need to be to make a postseason run.
“I still think we’re a month away to be what we need this thing to be if we’re going to be one of those teams at the end because we’re not there right now,” Cal said.
For all of the faults Calipari found in his squad today, he said he was encouraged by their chatter after the game in the locker room.
“These kids are trying. I love the chatter in the locker room. They were talking and you know, when kids are excited, they chatter. So you had just everybody in there talking and it was — then they talk louder and I’m in my office and I can hear them in there. That’s what I want to hear. I want to hear that at dinner. You know, it means they care about one another. They like each other. There’s some emotion between them.”
9. All in all, it’s been a pretty nice Saturday
Kentucky’s defense was bad and De’Aaron Fox was on the bench the last seven minutes, but they still won by 20. The football team got arguably their most explosive commitment of the Stoops era in Lynn Bowden, who announced his commitment on our pregame show. Add in a Duke loss (even if it was to Louisville) that included Grayson Allen getting smacked in the face and that’s a pretty nice little Saturday. Do your best to go enjoy the rest of it.