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Sports Notes: Calipari says freshman Labissiere may be showing signs of breaking out of funk


By Glenn Osborne
KyForward sports editor

It didn’t take Skal Labissiere long to remind Kentucky Wildcat fans what all the excitement was about when he joined the program this year as one of the nation’s top recruits.

The 6-11 freshman, who tallied just four points in his previous three games, entered the contest Saturday against Ole Miss six minutes into the first half. He grabbed the first offensive rebound he saw and jammed it home for two of his nine points. The crowd erupted and cheered the big man’s every move. He would finish with three rebounds before fouling out after 14 minutes of play.

With Tuesday’s showdown with LSU’s talented freshman Ben Simmons on the horizon, could the talented Labissiere finally be showing signs of returning to the form that saw him average nearly 15 points a game over Kentucky’s first six contests?

John Calipari said he was happy to see Skal Labissiere play more aggressively. He scored nine points Saturday, his most since getting 10 against Eastern Kentucky on Dec. 9 (Bill Thiry Photo)

John Calipari said he was happy to see Skal Labissiere play more aggressively. He scored nine points Saturday, his most since getting 10 against Eastern Kentucky on Dec. 9 (Bill Thiry Photo)

“It’s a first step,” said UK head coach John Calipari. “There’s still a lot of other stuff still there. But like, I want him to smile and have fun playing. I’m just happy he took that first step. He’s been better in practice, he’s got a bunch of guys cheering for him on this team. We do need him to play. We need his size and his ability to block shots.”

There have been reports in the media that Labissiere has had some difficulty dealing with the criticism his recent play has generated in both social and mainstream media. Calipari said having the support of fans as well as his teammates can make a difference. He has also suggested the the big man may not be ready to advance to the NBA after his freshman season and shouldn’t focus his attention on anything but steadily improving his game.

“The whole place went crazy (when) he dunked the ball,” Calipari said. “Now he did push the guy? I think. But he grabbed the ball and he dunked it and everybody went crazy. This whole state — I believe the whole country wants this kid to do well. I told him, you’ve got to unpack the bags, live in the moment, enjoy this thing. There’s no timetable of this. It’s just go do the best you can and have fun.

“I told him, you’re going to get time, I’m going to put you in. Now if you want to play a lot, you’re going to go get balls and rebound. I told him after the game, has nothing to do with what you could do offensively. It’s that you hold your position, you catch balls on offense, and defensively, block a shot or two and just rebound the ball.”

Alex Poythress, who had six points and nine rebounds against the Rebels, was happy to see Labissiere come out of his recent funk a bit.

“We were all happy for him,” he said. “He is working real hard in practice, just trying to get out of this little funk that he is in. When he makes a big play we are over there cheering him on. The crowd did a great job cheering him on too, which just shows that we’re all there for him. He seemed more aggressive in the game, which is something that we like. If he keeps on playing like that it is going to help him and help our team.”

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Simmons, who will lead LSU against UK Tuesday at 9 p.m. on ESPN, is averaging 20.5 points and 13 rebounds this season. He poured in 36 points and grabbed 13 boards in his team’s 90-82 win over Vandy Saturday.

Simmons posted his monster game after being held scoreless for the first 13 minutes.

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With Alabama set to face Clemson in the national championship game next Monday, it’s obvious the Southeastern Conference is having a strong post-season. The conference is 8-2 in bowl games, including an impressive 6-1 by teams from the West Division. The SEC was also 3-1 versus the Big 10, including the Tides’ 38-0 mauling of Michigan State.

The only two SEC losses were suffered by Texas A&M, which lost to Louisville, and Florida, which fell victim to Jim Harbaugh’s resurgent Michigan Wolverines.

The second-best bowl conference this year? The PAC 12, with a 6-4 mark. The Big 10 was 5-5, the Big 12 3-4 and the ACC checked in at 4-5.

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Kentucky’s women’s basketball team missed out on setting a new record for wins to start a season Sunday when the seventh-ranked Wildcats were upset on the road by Auburn, 66-61.

Coach Matthew Mitchell’s team blew a 17-point lead to lose for the first time in 12 outings.

Auburn started the game by missing 13 of its first 15 shots to trail 30-13. But the Wildcats committed a season-high 26 turnovers and allowed the Tigers to shoot over 71 percent from the field in the second half, fueling the upset.

“We played with a tremendous lack of focus,” Mitchell said after the game. “We did not follow the game plan as far as breaking the press. We got real lackadaisical.”

Point guard Makayla Epps concurred.

“We haven’t seen a press all year and it was a different look for some freshmen out there,” said Epps, who had 20 points and six rebounds but also committed five turnovers.

Kentucky will welcome Alabama to Memorial Coliseum on Thursday at 7 p.m.


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