With the holidays hurtling at us again here’s a lesson to remember, courtesy of the UCLA Bruins: Be careful what your wish for; because a team from the Pac 12 just might bring it.
Spreading the word on pre-game TV and radio about this afternoon’s matchup between the two programs that have rung up 19 national championships between them, Rex Chapman of the UK Network said he was hoping the Wildcats got punched in their collective kisser, just to bump them off their comfort spot. But the former Wildcat also said he believed the Cats had enough skills – and the right attitude – to counter-punch.
He was right. And wrong, at least on this Saturday afternoon.
UCLA slid out to a modest early lead. Maybe it wasn’t a sock in the jaw, but it got Kentucky’s attention. The Wildcats responded, attacking the rim and forcing turnovers. Early in the first half, they led it, 23-14. From then on, the game swung to the lighter shade of blue. The Bruins outscored the home team by 14 points, winning 97-92, the second straight season they’ve upset a top-ranked Kentucky team.
Challenged for the first time, the Wildcats wilted. The gang couldn’t shoot straight. Without Malik Monk (10-of-19) and Derek Willis (4-of-7), Kentucky’s shooting would have been much uglier than the 41 percent on the stat sheet. Still, the Wildcats scored more than 90 points. They just couldn’t stop the other guys.
“This wasn’t about (offense),” John Calipari said. No, sir. It was about defense. “We gave up 10 threes and I’m guessing six of them we left a shooter,” he said.
And left to their own devices, the Bruins carved up the Wildcats, sliding off to a 49-45 halftime lead and hitting seven of their first eight in the second half to take command, although the Cats made a furious rally to climb back in it at the end.
UCLA had a chance to salt it away in the final seconds but guard Brice Alford, a 91 percent free throw shooter, missed his second of the day, leaving the gate open. Malik Monk barged through it with his fourth triple of the day, whittling the deficit to 95-92. But there were precious few seconds left and Kentucky was forced to foul Alford again. This time, he was money.
The 97 Bruin points were the most ever surrendered by a Calipari-coached Kentucky team. It likely disappointed him more than the interminable number of layups his team missed – not to mention the three times Isaiah Briscoe stepped out of bounds under the basket. That Rupp Arena court just ain’t big enough for him, apparently.
“We missed a lot of lay-ups, one-footer stuff,” Calipari said. “But it all comes back to the same thing: we didn’t have discipline defensively, we just didn’t. We fouled on drives instead of giving them space. Now all of a sudden you put them to the foul line when they were having a tough time scoring.
“I have to give credit to them. 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.”
Of course, this was a team replete with talented newcomers who’ve not had many opportunities to protect their house. UCLA has its own outrageously talented freshman, point guard Lonzo Ball. But it has veterans, as well – Alford, Thomas Welsh, Isaac Hamilton, Aaron Holiday. All of them hurt the Wildcats last season and they did it again Saturday.
The Bruins socked Kentucky in the mouth. The Cats responded but not in the best way. They fired back but kept taking blow after blow and in the end, took a standing eight count. It won’t be their only loss of the season but it’s the first one. And there was one heck of a lesson packed in that UCLA punch.