CRAWFORD | UCLA's 87-77 win shows this Kentucky team can't live - WDRB 41 Louisville News

CRAWFORD | UCLA's 87-77 win shows this Kentucky team can't live by talent alone

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Kentucky forward Skal Labissiere, center, holds the ball as UCLA's Isaac Hamilton, left, Aaron Holiday, front, and Thomas Welsh, right. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo) Kentucky forward Skal Labissiere, center, holds the ball as UCLA's Isaac Hamilton, left, Aaron Holiday, front, and Thomas Welsh, right. (AP Photo/Kelvin Kuo)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — If Kentucky’s 41-7 halftime lead over UCLA last season sent a message to the rest of college basketball that resistance was (nearly) futile, UCLA’s 87-77 victory over the No. 1-ranked and previously unbeaten Wildcats Thursday night sent its own message: These are not last season’s Wildcats. Not yet. And not really close.

Let it be noted, the Wildcats faced some adversity. California native Marcus Lee, their best “energy” player and one of the nation’s leading offensive rebounders, left the game in the first half with an undisclosed head injury and didn’t return. Point guard Tyler Ulis, returning from a hyperextended elbow, wasn’t himself, making just 2 of 12 shots from the field. Alex Poythress, the Wildcats’ other experienced front-line player, fouled out in 17 minutes.

“You have one guy out, Marcus Lee, you see it’s a difference,” UK coach John Calipari told Tom Leach on his postgame radio show on the UK Network. “When you have Tyler out, you saw it’s a difference. This is a team, we’re not like a team that we were last year, where we could come at you so many ways. We’ve got to be a real execution team.”

They aren’t that, yet. Nor are they a particularly scrappy team, and that, more than anything, is something Calipari hopes to address quickly.

Unranked UCLA jumped on Kentucky from the opening tip, and kept jumping. They beat Kentucky on the boards. They held their own in the paint. And instead of posting up big man Thomas Welsh, UCLA coach Steve Alford used him on pick-and-pops, leaving him open time and again for mid-range jumpers, which he drained all night — 8 of 11 of them for a game-high 21 points.

Instead of playing a zone, which Calipari figured to face all night, Alford played no zone.

UK was off-balance all game, and not just its players. And to his credit, and you have to give this to Calipari, he owned that. When passing out blame, he got right on the bus with his players.

“Their coach outcoached our coach. Their guards outhustled our guards to balls. They executed better than us,” Calipari told reporters after the game. “We got kicked. Every once in a while this stuff happens.”

It hasn’t happened much lately to Kentucky. While the Wildcats lost for the fifth time in the past six games against a non-conference opponent on the road, they hadn’t dropped a double-digit loss since March 8, 2014, which also, incidentally, was their last regular-season loss, a span of 38 games. UCLA got its first win over a top-ranked opponent since 2003.

“We’ve had a pretty good run,” Calipari said. “Now see if we can get it going again.”

To do that will require a level of toughness that this team has yet to display. At one point, Ulis shoved freshman Skal Labissiere, as if trying to provoke him to get mad on the court.  Calipari has been trying to urge his players to that level of toughness for several weeks. Maybe a loss will do what the coach hasn’t been able to do.

“It was disappointing that they beat us to loose balls and were more physical than us inside,” Calipari said to reporters.

This is not yet the kind of team whose interior strikes fear into the hearts of opposing scorers. It is not yet the kind of relentless offense that won’t take no for an answer when driving the lane. (Expect Calipari to have that fixed soon, if nothing else.)

And it is not the kind of team that can get up only for opponents with little Associated Press poll numbers beside their names, and demolish the rest.

"We learned that we can be beat. Anyone can beat us," Ulis said. "We can't just win on talent alone."

 And that’s a change for this group, and for Calipari. Last season, he could focus solely on his own team and not worry about what the other guys were doing. This season will require his team to understand scouting reports, and execute them.

And until they develop the kind of toughness — especially on the interior — that Calipari wants, they aren’t going to be the kind of contender they were expected to be.

Simple as that.

UCLA shot 52.8 percent from the field and 56 percent in the second half. UK shot just 36.8 percent. One game after going to the line 46 times, the Wildcats shot only two free throws in the first half Thursday night. 

“They were tougher,” Calipari told Leach. “That’s what we’ve been talking about. That grit, that battle. I’ve done this long enough to know that it’s hard to win if you’re not being that team. And, you know, we’ve got guys who are capable of doing it. In my mind they are, or I wouldn’t have had them here. I wouldn’t have recruited them. I think they’re going to be fine. . . . But this was a spanking.”

Isaiah Briscoe was a bright spot for Kentucky. He was the one player who consistently got to the rim and finished with 20 points. Jamal Murray had 17 but seemed out of sync all night. Derrick Willis came off the bench to deliver 11 points late.

But this wasn’t a close game. UK led for only 30 seconds. That’s about as long as it stayed within single digits during the game’s final 16 minutes.

A UCLA team with losses to Monmouth and Wake Forest gave itself new life, and exorcised the memory of last season’s 83-44 loss to Kentucky in Chicago. All five of its starters finished in double-figures. The Bruins used only seven players.

“They’re just learning,” Calipari told Leach. “It’s all a process. It doesn’t happen overnight. We are what we are right now. We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to be a team that fights for every possession. Fights for balls. Gets to the foul line. When guys have shots, they’ve got to take them. This team backed off us and we had some guys that did have shots and didn’t take them. It was ugly. This was one, you’ve got to watch the tape but you really don’t want to.”

To reporters, Calipari said. “We have to have a five-hour trip going back. That’s going to be really good now.”

But Kentucky, which had cruised to an unbeaten record with little urgency — with the exception of a win over Duke — should be a different team when that plane lands in Lexington.

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