CRAWFORD | UCLA beats No. 1 UK at its own game, teaches lessons in 97-92 Rupp Arena upset
UCLA became just the second team in history to knock off a No. 1-ranked UK team in Rupp Arena on Saturday, using sharp shooting and a rebounding edge to beat the Wildcats 97-92.
LEXINGTON, Ky. (WDRB) — Final exams are still a little more than a week away at the University of Kentucky, but the young Wildcats got a bonus lesson just before fall semester courses wrap up on Saturday.
On a big-stage, at home against tradition-rich UCLA in front of a primed crowd in renovated Rupp Arena and a national CBS audience, the No. 1-ranked Wildcats failed to fire in the way they have the past three games, losing 97-92 to the No. 11 Bruins, ending a 42-game home-court winning streak.
Understand this — losses at home are not to be taken lightly when you’re a UK team, especially a No. 1-ranked UK team. The Wildcats, as the No. 1-ranked team in the Associated Press poll, were 53-1 in Rupp Arena prior to Saturday’s loss. They are 124-5 in the building under coach John Calipari. They’ve been undefeated here in five of Calipari’s seven seasons, and hadn’t lost here in two seasons.
Now, also understand this: Kentucky wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t really good. But offensively, if it doesn’t miss 12 of the 30 dunks and layups it attempted in the game, it wins narrowly. Certainly, UK didn’t look as good as it has against lesser competition, and its defense, against one of the nation's top offensive units, needed work.
But UCLA is good. UCLA was a top-five looking team on Saturday. UCLA looked better than I thought it was. And it’s fair to say, UCLA was better than UK thought it was.
UCLA is the best shooting team in the nation. UCLA is one of a handful of teams in the nation that can probably match Kentucky playing at its preferred pace. It’s in the top five in the nation in offensive efficiency.
Bruins’ coach Steve Alford reminded his players of all these things before the game.
“We talked about, ‘Don’t go in and jab around the ring to see if you belong. You’re 8-0. You’re playing well. Trust that you belong,’” Alford said. “That was the key thing that guys did from the tip. . . . If you can run with this team, you can run with anybody. We thought it would be a track meet. It was. We made shots, and if we can make shots in this environment against a team like this, it’s very encouraging.”
The game’s key sequences came at the end of the first half and beginning of the second.
Kentucky led by nine points after 10 minutes and led for most of the first half, until UCLA tied the game with 2:40 left in the half. Up one and playing for one shot out of a timeout, Lonzo Ball rose up for a three with four seconds left in the half to put UCLA up 49-45 at the half.
To start the second, UCLA went on a quick 11-2 run to claim a 13-point lead, and that provided a key test for Kentucky.
The Wildcats haven’t faced that kind of deficit this season — especially not at home. It’s a different kind of pressure, especially for UK’s freshmen. You go from an absolute demolition of Arizona State, as impressive a performance — even against a mediocre opponent — as anyone has turned in all season, to ascending to the AP’s No. 1 ranking. You’ve got people — present company included — talking about you as being as talented as a Kentucky team that jumped out of the gate 38-0 two seasons ago.
Praise is poison, sometimes, and while I don’t know that it was the main culprit for UK on Saturday, it did play a part.
“We don’t worry about anybody,” said freshman Malik Monk, who led Kentucky with 24 points on 10 of 18 shooting. “We never worry about anybody. And that’s what beat us today. . . . We didn’t fight. They were hitting us in the mouth and we were not hitting back. But now we’ve seen it, we’ll see it on film, and learn from it. Like Cal said, we needed a game like this to see where we are for real. I think we’ll learn real fast. The lesson was to be focused, and be focused on defense.”
The problem was a little more detailed than not fighting back. Calipari said he didn’t like the way his team stopped passing the ball when it fell behind. The Wildcats had scored better than 100 points in three straight games by averaging just over 27 assists per contest. Against UCLA, the Wildcats had just 16 — 9 of those from point guard De’Aaron Fox.
Behind that was likely the natural instinct for good players to try to take over when things get tough. Sophomore guard Isaiah Briscoe three times drove baseline and stepped out of bounds in the second half. He got angry at some foul calls and lost his composure briefly. It’s understandable, but something you can’t have from a player who is supposed to be leading your team.
Still, the Wildcats got 80 shots in the game. They scored 92 points. They attempted 30 layups or dunks. That’s generally enough to win.
The biggest culprit in the loss was UK’s defense. But UCLA has made many teams look bad defensively. The Bruins shot better than 55 percent on the season, and shot 53 percent in Rupp Arena.
T.J. Leaf, as Calipari put it, “killed us.” The 6-10 freshman scored on fadeaways and drives to the rim. He made 7 of 12 shots and grabbed 13 rebounds to go with 5 assists.
“You’ve got to give UCLA credit for how they played and what they did,” Calipari said. “Leaf basically dominated the game. . . . Straight line drives, rebounds, making shots. We left him a couple times. He played. They also played to their strengths. Now, we turned them over a bunch, got a lot more shots than they did. But when we had our chance down seven, turnover, dunk, give up a three, all within 13 seconds. It's all discipline.”
Calipari was particularly disappointed in the defensive discipline. The one defensive key for his team going into the game was to stay out on three-point shooters, to not allow UCLA to catch and shoot. The Bruins got good looks from three-point range, and made 10 of 23 from beyond the arc.
“This is a lesson for us,” Calipari said. “We didn't have the energy. I had to call a timeout a minute into the game. I mean, just wasn't the same team. How about this one? We had 16 assists. Why didn't we pass it today? Because it was national television, it's my time? We all look bad. There are great lessons out of this. I wish we would have come back and won. I would have liked to learn from that lesson a little bit more. But sometimes you need to get hit on the chin, especially at home.”
The Wildcats got 20 points from Fox, on 8-for-20 shooting. They got 18 points and 13 rebounds from Bam Adebayo, and 12 points from Briscoe, who went 0-5 from three-point range. Derek Willis added 11 points and four rebounds in 22 minutes. Willis needed to be more aggressive looking for his shot, but in his defense, he was up all night with an illness.
Calipari said several players had been under the weather, and because of that he chose not to have a pregame walk-through. Maybe that contributed to the loss. If it did, Calipari wouldn’t say so.
The loss wasn’t the end of the world, even if at Kentucky, every loss seems like it.
“We put it aside already,” Monk said a half hour after the game. “We’re not even worried about the game. We’re worried about Wednesday (when the Wildcats return to action against Valparaiso).”
UCLA, meanwhile, at 9-0, beat UK for a second straight year when the Wildcats were ranked No. 1. Both victories came on Dec. 3, in fact. UCLA also became the first program to beat a No. 1-ranked UK team in consecutive seasons. The Bruins beat Kentucky at its own game, playing up-tempo. They had six players score in double figures (led by Isaac Hamilton with 19) and outrebounded Kentucky 41-38.
“The thing I’m most pleased with is that we came in here with a certain identity and we left here with the same identity - we just did it against the No. 1 team in the county,” Alford said. “This was by far the best team that we’ve played. To know that we’ve established an identity of six guys in double figures again, that’s been our identity. We probably had too many turnovers tonight. That’s a lot more than what we normally have, but that’s a credit to Kentucky’s defense. I think our guys will learn from that. We had some silly turnovers that hurt us as well. We came in a high-scoring team that shared the ball and put six guys in double figures. To do that in this building against this team, that’s very encouraging.”
For Kentucky, there’s no reason to be discouraged, even if there is room for disappointment. The Wildcats kept battling, even closed to within three points in the final 30 seconds.
“I have to give credit to (UCLA),” he said. “To come into this building. It's 12:30, 9:30 their time, to come in and do what they did to us, and they manhandled us, they physically manhandled us. You don't see that very often, especially in this building. . . . The great thing about college basketball is you'd like to learn from close wins, but sometimes it doesn't work that way, you got to learn from a loss. That's what we'll try to do.”
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