Kentucky Coach John Calipari got the gut-check game he said he wanted. He might not want another one for a while.
UCLA snapped Kentucky’s 42-game home winning streak by winning 97-92 Saturday.
The defeat was only Calipari’s fifth in 129 home games as UK coach. It had taken something extraordinary to beat Kentucky in Rupp Arena. Elston Turner scoring 40 points for Texas A&M or one of Billy Donovan’s Final Four teams at Florida, or the Bobby Portis-Michael Qualls combination for Arkansas, or a battle-tested Baylor team.
No. 11 UCLA, which improved to 9-0, simply outplayed Kentucky. The Bruins shot better, outrebounded UK and had more assists.
UCLA took the lead late in the first half and never relinquished it. The deficit reached its zenith at 76-62 with 9:32 left.
“They manhandled us,” Calipari said of the Bruins. “They physically manhandled us. You don’t see that very often, especially in this building.”
Being credited with manhandling an opponent had to feel good for a UCLA team that had had its toughness questioned.
Kentucky (7-1) saw the wound as, at least partially, self-inflicted.
Defense, the bedrock of this Kentucky team, had sinkhole slippage when compared to the suffocation of Arizona State on Monday.
Alluding to the timeouts he called inside the first two minutes of each half, Calipari said, “Just wasn’t the same team.”
UCLA made 53 percent of its shots, the best accuracy by a UK opponent since Wichita State in the 2014 NCAA Tournament (55.1 percent).
Kentucky also gave up a season-high 10 three-pointers, the most by an opponent since Auburn made 12 last Jan. 16. UK came into the game ranked sixth nationally in three-point defense. Opponents had made only 24.6 percent of their shots from beyond the arc.
The UK game plan stressed the need to make UCLA shoot off the dribble. “All we talked about for two days,” Calipari said. “… They’re not beating us shooting standing threes.”
Calipari guessed that six, maybe seven of UCLA’s threes were of the catch-and-shoot variety. The UK coach blamed a lack of discipline to stay with the defensive plan.
“Stuff we do not do, ever,” Malik Monk said. “And we were doing that. Playing selfish. And that’s why we lost.”
Another reason was cited.
“We couldn’t underestimate them,” Monk said, “and that’s what we did, I think.”
Derek Willis had a slightly different take on it.
“I wouldn’t say full of ourselves,” he said. “We just got complacent. I don’t feel anything like arrogance. I don’t think that’s the right word to describe us. … We just got real comfortable and complacent, and it led to this.
“We’ll learn from it.”
Kentucky came into the game ranked second nationally in average margin of victory (30.6 points), hence Calipari’s desire for a more competitive challenge.
The lessons of a close game had to include resilience. The Cats did not wilt. With plaintive urgings from the crowd, UK kept reducing the deficit. When Willis hit a three with 8.3 seconds left, a double-digit deficit only 40 seconds earlier was down to 95-92.
But UCLA responded. Playing No. 1 Kentucky so competitively in Rupp Arena had to give the Bruins a bit of self-confidence. Before the game, guard Isaac Hamilton suggested of the Bruins, “The jury is still out on us.”
It was apparent long before halftime that this game would be unlike what UK fans had seen previously this season.
In the first seven games, Kentucky led by an average of 17.7 points (49-31.3) at halftime. The Cats’ narrowest halftime leads were eight points over Michigan State and nine over Canisius.
UCLA led 49-45 at intermission, and that was without Lonzo Ball doing much.
The Bruins’ star freshman made only one of five shots, got credit for three assists and committed five turnovers in the opening half. His one basket gave UCLA momentum going into the second half. He hit a three-pointer over Bam Adebayo from the top of the key with three seconds left to set the halftime score.
With the game tied at 44-44 inside the final minute of the first half, Hamilton hit a fade-away from the post to put UCLA ahead. The Bruins led the rest of the way.
When asked what Kentucky could learn from the defeat, Monk said, “Be way more defensively sound. And just listen in to the coach and what he’s saying. Pay attention this time and know he knows what he’s talking about. He’s bigger than life.”
And now Calipari has a team that should not think it’s bigger than life.
Valparaiso at Kentucky
8 p.m. Wednesday (SEC Network)