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Keith Taylor: Fox delivers late, helps Wildcats avoid potential disaster in 88-81 win over Bulldogs

STARKVILLE — When things started falling apart for Kentucky, De’Aaron Fox stepped up and helped the Wildcats avoid a potential disaster on the road Tuesday night.

The freshman guard scored 21 points and dished out five assists for Kentucky in an 88-81 triumph over host Mississippi State but his biggest contribution came in the form of a slam dunk with 1:34 remaining after the Bulldogs had trimmed an 18-point lead to 79-75.

De’Aaron Fox goes in for a shot in Kentucky’s win over Mississippi State Tuesday night in Starkville (Keith Taylor Photo)

From that point on, the fifth-ranked Wildcats (16-2, 6-0 Southeastern Conference) made just enough free throws, including one on two attempts by Fox, to hold off the gritty Bulldogs and remain unbeaten in conference play.

The clutch outing by Fox came on a night when Malik Monk wasn’t at his best despite finishing with 14 points. Monk, who delivered the heroics with a freshman school-record 47 points in a win over North Carolina earlier this year, took a backseat to his freshman classmate.

LINK: Photo Gallery: Kentucky 88, Mississippi State 81
BOXSCORE LINK: Kentucky 88, Mississippi State 81

Kentucky coach John Calipari gave Fox the green light after he sensed Monk wasn’t up to par, despite putting together one of his best shoot around performances of the season earlier in the day.

“(I was like) ‘here you go, De’Aaron, go do your thing,’” Calipari said.

Although Monk and veteran Isaiah Briscoe have shown flashes of developing into Kentucky’s go-to player this season, the team’s balanced roster makes it virtually impossible to count on one player on a game-by-game basis.

“(Other) teams have a go-to person, (but) we don’t have that right now,” Fox said. “So, whoever has the hot hand that game is the one that does it. One game Malik (Monk) did it – the North Carolina game Malik did it. The Vanderbilt game, Isaiah kind of did it.

With Monk and Briscoe struggling to get into a consistent flow against the Bulldogs, Fox gladly took his turn.

“I just tried to step up, get to the basket, try to get fouled, try to knock down my free throws and if the free throws not going try to get the and-one so you at least get two points out of it and I think that’s what I did today,” he said.

Fox got some help from Wenyen Gabriel, who made all five of his field-goal attempts and finished with 13 points to go along with eight rebounds. Gabriel grabbed 16 boards in the Wildcats’ win over Auburn and continues to provide a mid-season spark for Calipari’s squad.

Fox hasn’t been surprised by the recent emergence of Gabriel and said the freshman forward is starting to “come out of his shell.”

“We always knew he could shoot, Fox said. “I’m not going to tell you what we call him in practice, but when he’s making shots and he’s really locked in, I think there’s times when he (hasn’t) missed a shot in practice, honestly. Today, everybody else saw him.

Read More at Keith's Blog

Read More at Keith’s Blog: Out of the Blue

“We’ve seen it. We’ve seen it multiple times this year. When he has his confidence going, when he’s talking and bouncing on defense, everything just starts to flow. Him keep doing what he’s doing, I feel like it’s tough for people to beat us, especially when he’s making shots.”

Gabriel said his performance was “kind of a follow up from the last game” and is further evidence of his development behind the scenes.

“My confidence has been picking up,” Gabriel said. “I’m kind of just trying to use that momentum to push forward through SEC (play).”

As for Monk, Fox said his backcourt mate just had an “off-night.” Not only did Monk fail to hit a 3-pointer, his technical foul for hanging on the rim for an extended period to time in the second half helped ignite the Bulldogs’ unsuccessful comeback attempt.

“It’s happened before and then he comes back with a big game,” Fox said. “So, I’m not worried about it. I’d tell Malik to keep shooting. I would hope no Kentucky fan, nobody that has Kentucky across their chest would tell him to stop shooting. I’m definitely not going to tell him to stop shooting because it’s going to start falling.”

While Monk tries to snap out of his funk behind the arc, Fox will likely spend more time with free throws after making just five on nine attempts against Mississippi State.

“De’Aaron’s got to make free throws,” Calipari said. “(You) can’t have your point guard going 1 for 2 or 0 for 2. Just can’t have it. That guy’s gotta make free throws.”

Although his charity tosses were off the mark, his eight field goals mattered the most.

Gametracker: South Carolina at Kentucky, 6 p.m., Saturday. TV/Radio: ESPN, 98.1 FM WBUL.

Keith Taylor is a senior sports writer for KyForward, where he primarily covers University of Kentucky sports. Reach him at keith.taylor@kyforward.com or @keithtaylor21 on Twitter

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