Since John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe got the John Calipari era off to a rollicking one-and-done start, no program in college hoops has been more identified with exceptional freshmen than Kentucky.
So what happened before a stunned Rupp Arena crowd of 23,977 Saturday afternoon is not something that has been seen often since Calipari came to UK in 2009-10.
UCLA beat Kentucky at its own game — the freshman game.
Getting a stellar all-around game from freshman power forward T.J. Leaf and a series of big plays at big moments from frosh point guard Lonzo Ball, No. 11 UCLA (9-0) upset No. 1 Kentucky (7-1) 97-92.
Leaf, a skilled 6-foot-10, 225-pound product of El Cajon, Calif., was the best player in the game. He finished with 17 points, 13 rebounds, five assists and also had a steal and a blocked shot.
“What Leaf did, he basically dominated the game,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. “He killed us.”
Said UCLA head man Steve Alford: “I thought T.J. was a handful. … I thought he came up with every big rebound, came up with huge baskets.”
Ball shook off a shaky first half to make, arguably, the three biggest baskets of the game.
After missing his first four shots and producing first-half turnovers (five) at a pace that must have made Magee’s Bakery envious, Ball still had the moxie to stick a three-point jumper just four seconds before halftime.
It put UCLA up 49-45, and gave momentum to the powder blue and gold.
Seemingly inspired by Ball’s trey, UCLA opened the second half with an 11-2 run to take a 60-47 lead from which Kentucky never dug out.
“I had the shot, and I took it,” Ball said of his just-before-halftime three-pointer. “I wasn’t hitting the whole game, but in the big moments, I was able to come through.”
Yet, Ball’s biggest plays came after a Malik Monk dunk pulled UK within 78-71 with 6:30 left.
As the Rupp crowd, sensing a Kentucky run building, roared, Ball foiled a UK fast break with a steal that led to a breakaway dunk.
Monk answered with a UK trey, but Ball trumped it. The UCLA guard drained his own three from the left wing with 5:15 left to put the Bruins ahead 83-74.
Ball wagged his finger in front of his lips in a “Shhhh” gesture, but Rupp Arena had already fallen silent.
“That was probably the game right there,” Monk said. “I think if we didn’t have that right there, we would have probably fought the game out and won.”
Ball finished with 14 points, seven assists, six rebounds — and only one of his six turnovers after halftime.
“The kid just knows how to win,” Alford said. “… I think that is what makes him special. He can beat you in a lot of different ways.”
It wasn’t that Kentucky’s marquee freshmen were horrible. Far from it. Monk had a game-high 24 points and shot well (10-for-19, 4-for-8 on treys). Center Bam Adebayo produced a double-double (18 points, 13 rebounds). Point guard De’Aaron Fox had 20 points and nine assists, though he was not offensively efficient (8-for-20 from the field).
In the big picture, now that the run-away hype from a series of early-season Cats blowouts of undermanned foes can die down, UK will benefit from this loss — if it learns the right lessons.
Said Monk: “We need to be way more defensively sound and pay attention this time to the coach and know he knows what he’s talking about.”
Still, UCLA 97, UK 92, will go down as one of the few times in the Calipari era when the other team’s star freshmen — Leaf and Ball — shone brighter than Kentucky’s.
“We were at (the) McDonald’s (All-America Game) together,” Monk said. “I knew they were great players, and they played great.”