For the second time this season, Kentucky face a storied, marquee program and make mince meat out of them, beating UCLA 83-44 which included holding them to just 7 points in the first half and keeping their streak of 12 wins since the start of the season, all by a double digit margin, alive and kicking.
This is far from the greatest team in UCLA history. It might not be an even very good one, but still, to score just 7 points in one half and succumb to a 24-0 run in the early goings by the Wildcats was a low point for the Bruins, Steve Alford and the young players themselves. Sure, sometimes you do get overwhelmed early on, but this was a complete, systematic failure and shutdown that lasted for over 20 minutes before Kentucky simply loosened up.
Just like in their win over Kansas, 20 minutes of perfect defense led to an almost unbelievable score in the end. But if in the win over the Jayhawks people didn’t know how good this Kentucky team can be, it was a bit less surprising to see their brand of defense completely swarm and eliminate UCLA’s attempts to win the game in the paint. Kentucky limited them to only 18 points inside, allowing only 30% from the field from close range.
While the Wildcats don’t look too exciting offensively (despite the 83 points) they don’t make many mistakes. And even if they do turn the ball over (12 times), their ability to deny any fast break or some kind of transition offense makes it impossible to surprise them with points, as long as they’re focused. They held UCLA to 37 points on half court offense, shooting 25% on those sets. In the first half it reached beyond embarrassing levels as the Bruins shot just 8.3% on half court sets.
Kentucky on the other hand, thanks to their defense, saw plenty of opportunities in transition. They scored 28 points (11-of-15 from the field) on transition, outscoring UCLA in such plays 21-0 in the first half. They ended up handing UCLA their worst loss since a 41-point defeat against North Carolina in 1997. It’s the first time since that year UCLA have lost a game by more than 40 points, and only the fourth time in the last 15 years of losing by more than 30.
As always with Kentucky this season, the box score doesn’t tell the whole story. No one had a breakout, out-of-this-world performance. Devin Booker scored 19 points in 16 minutes off the bench and Aaron Harrison scored 15 points himself. The talk of Kentucky having two lineups that rotate between them isn’t too far from the truth, but there are some minutes of players from both “teams” mixing it up. It doesn’t take away from their ability to shut down on defense and completely dominate.
John Calipari wants to let people know his players aren’t machines, aren’t perfect and will have down days and plays. The man who loves attention but then argues that his team is getting too much attention seems to have assembled himself a rare breed, for the first time combining freshman with veterans on his team after realizing that simply going after new guys each season won’t get him the title every time. The regular season tends to differ from the tournament and he still hasn’t begun to play in the SEC, but it’s hard to see an actual vulnerability in this Kentucky team at this point.