John Clay

John Clay: Cats go to L.A. and star in the ‘Young and the Fragile’

If, as they say, travel is educational then Kentucky learned a lesson on the Left Coast Thursday night.

This isn’t last year.

We already knew that, of course, but Pauley Pavilion exposed it in living color. Playing without much of a post presence, and with erratic guard play, and without Marcus Lee for nearly the entire night and Alex Poythress – need we continue? – the top-ranked Cats walked right into a Bruins buzzsaw and lost 87-77 to host UCLA.

There will be plenty who point to this as payback for the horrific 83-44 beatdown Kentucky placed on Steve Alford and UCLA a year ago in Chicago. That was the game where it took forever for UCLA to finally score. UK led 41-7 at the half. It was total domination by a Kentucky team that would end up 38-1.

And, to be sure, UCLA was jacked up for Kentucky’s first visit to Pauley. Gold T-shirts greeted Bruins’ fans on every seat as part of a “Gold Out.” During timeouts, the video board showed various former UCLA basketball greats and even a couple of ex-Laker greats in Jerry West and Shaq. The latter got the biggest cheer of the night.

For Kentucky, this game was all about this year. Certainly at no time this season, and maybe in a couple of seasons, have the Cats looked so young and so fragile, especially under the basket. UCLA’s twin duo inside of 7-footer Thomas Welsh and 6-10 Tony Parker were too much to handle.

“They’re coach outcoached our coach,” said UK Coach John Calipari after his team’s first loss in eight games. “Their guards outhustled our guards to balls. We got kicked. And every once in a while that happens. It’s just disappointing that they beat us to every 50-50 ball. They were more physical inside than us.”

UCLA won the boards by just 38-37 and the points in the paint just 30-28, but there was something about the way the Bruins kept the Cats from getting the ball inside, or driving inside, or fighting for the key rebound.

It didn’t help the Cats’ cause that junior forward Marcus Lee, a 6-10 starter and California native, left the game early with a head injury and did not return.

“Now I’m playing guys I haven’t played that much,” Calipari said. “But that’s no excuse.”

It was indeed that kind of night. Kentucky shot just 37.9 for the game compared to 52.8 for the Bruins. It was the first time an opponent has shot 50 percent or better against Kentucky since Wichita State in 2014.

“Usually we’re a pretty good team and we gave up 87 points,” Calipari said, adding that had not the Bruins held the ball late, “it would have been 97.”

UCLA led 37-29 at the half – again an opponent’s biggest halftime lead over the Cats since 2014 – but when we really knew it was the Bruins night was when a UCLA student hit a layup, a free throw and a halfcourt shot in 30 seconds at halftime to win a contest.

If we didn’t know then, we surely knew when UCLA guard Prince Ali roared down the lane then threw down a tomahawk jam over Alex Poythress, who in the process committed his fifth foul with 9:56 left.

“Why would you do that?” Calipari said. “Let him have the layup.”

Yes, Monmouth beat UCLA. And Wake Forest beat UCLA. And Kansas ripped UCLA in Maui. But the Bruins aren’t that bad. Welsh, maybe the most improved player in the country, scored 21 points. Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton each added 15. Turnovers had been a problem for Steve Alford’s team, but UCLA committed just 10.

Meanwhile, Kentucky is not that good as its No. 1 ranking suggests. It is young. It has flaws. It needs to get stronger inside and more aggressive overall, and maybe Thursday night in Westwood was a teaching tool to that end. This team has a long way to go.

It also had a long flight home.

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

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