Gabriel regains his confidence as his effort shines against Auburn

Kentucky Wildcats forward Wenyen Gabriel shoots a free throw during the game against Auburn at Rupp Arena on Saturday, January 14, 2017 in Lexington, Ky. Kentucky defeated Auburn 92-72. Photo by Lydia Emeric | Staff 

Anthony Crawford

For as hard as he plays, questions over UK freshman Wenyen Gabriel’s effort have never followed him in his time at UK.

Gabriel has consistently been the player throwing himself into battles on the boards and on the floor for loose balls, but there’s still an extra gear that he has to hit for the times when he puts it all together, and he hit that gear for a stretch against Auburn in the Cats’ 92-72 home victory Saturday. 

During the first five minutes of the game, the lead changed hands nine times as both teams started the game with some hot shooting from outside to help continue leap-frogging each other. 

Not only did Gabriel play a part in the hot shooting for UK, starting the game out 2-for-2 from three-point land, but he also led the battle on the offensive glass that led to UK rebounding six of its first seven missed shots.

Gabriel pulled down three of those offensive rebounds in that stretch and finished with five in the game and a career-high 16 total rebounds. He has always been the guy to fight on the inside like that but this is by far his most dominant performance to date and his confidence couldn’t be any higher.

“It felt good. It kind of felt like I’m going back to how I was playing in high school,” Gabriel said. “My confidence is coming back and I’m going to start playing more aggressively.”

The aggressive play he showed tonight was a nice change of pace from what fans have grown to expect from the freshman. While his game is built around hustle and physical play, his body has some catching up to do as a part of playing at the collegiate level.

While Gabriel has no problem willing his way inside for the offensive rebounds, put-backs have been scarce as he seems to lack the strength to go up strong. That notion continued against Auburn as Gabriel’s two threes were the only shots he hit, as he went 0-for-5 from inside the arc.

That combined with his 0-for-4 free throw shooting, led to Gabriel missing out on his second career double-double. But his stat line still rounded out nicely as he tacked on two blocks and a steal on the defensive end all while being a target for the Auburn attack.

Despite what Auburn’s head coach Bruce Pearl had to say about his team’s offense, John Calipari said following the game that the Tigers goal was to get straight line drives going at UK’s four spot.

With Gabriel primarily manning that position he was tested on multiple occasions. It was a perfect performance on defense, but improvements were there with the shots he blocked and the multiple charges he drew.

The game as a whole was easily one of his best this season and Calipari can only hope that Gabriel continues to improve as his confidence rises.

“I’ve had confidence issues lately, but I’m coming back and those two threes and rebounds showed it tonight,” Gabriel said. “…Coming to play at Kentucky, here in the SEC and in college, it’s a big difference especially with my body type. Getting used to it took me awhile. I’m starting to get used to it now, I’m maturing more, learning how to play and finding my role.”