This year, UCLA had other plans. The Bruins took down the previously unbeaten and top-ranked Wildcats 87-77 Thursday night at Pauley Pavilion, avenging their embarrassing 2014 loss and, perhaps, giving direction to their once rudderless season.
How did the Bruins win their first game against a top-ranked opponent since 2003? By packing the paint on defense and outmuscling Kentucky on the boards, UCLA was able to limit a Kentucky team that came into the night averaging 42 points per game in the paint to only 12 in the first 20 minutes. Take a look at this screenshot from late in the first half:
Every UCLA defender is either in the paint or a foot away. This approach walled off the rim and dared the Wildcats to shoot contested threes and long twos, like the shot Kentucky ended up with in that same possession:
That is a less-than-ideal attempt. Kentucky guard Isaiah Briscoe is fading away from the rim on a contested long two at the end of the shot clock, a low percentage shot that UCLA was able to force the Wildcats into all night long.
In addition to stifling the paint, the Bruins did an excellent job of moving on a string and cutting off driving lanes. UCLA’s guards effectively navigated on- and off-ball screens for most of the game, and even when Kentucky successfully picked off an opposing guard the Bruins’ big men seamlessly switched and snuffed out the point of attack.
The Wildcats didn’t help themselves much either. They vacillated between not attacking the rim aggressively enough and attacking the rim through one-on-one possessions instead of using side-to-side passing to force the UCLA defense to move off its spots. When they were able to create open looks, they missed them, from open corner threes to breakaway layups. The Wildcats only shot 38% from the field, and while UCLA did execute a sound defensive game plan, had Kentucky converted some of its easier looks, the end result might have been different.
Forward Skal Labissiere managed only six points and one rebound in 16 minutes of action, as the Wildcats' top freshman was rendered useless for most of the game. The Bruins’ overwhelmed him with brute force, to the point where Kentucky head coach John Calipari sat him to start the second half. Look at what UCLA forward Tony Parker did to poor Labissiere here:
Parker just lowered his shoulder and bulldozed his way to the rim as if the Port-au-Prince native were invisible, drawing a foul in the process. The game was Labissiere’s second straight poor outing, and he and his fellow Kentucky big men were unable to protect the glass in key moments, especially once junior forward Marcus Lee left the game in the first half with a head injury. The Bruins only outrebounded Kentucky by one, 38-37, but they got to what seemed like every loose ball and made all of the scrappy hustle plays an unranked team needs to make in order to beat the top-ranked team in the nation.
Defensively, the Wildcats struggled to stay disciplined, and the Bruins took advantage early and often. UCLA guards Aaron Holiday and Bryce Alford dissected the Kentucky defense with a pick-and-pop, two-man game involving center Thomas Welsh. Welsh was on fire, scoring 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting while adding 10 rebounds. The Wildcats had a ton of miscommunications and gave Welsh too much space to get his 15-18 foot jumper off, even when it became clear he had the hot hand.
Kentucky’s closeouts were suspect as well, as its defenders found themselves out of position, allowing easy penetration for the Bruins that led to repeated layups and offensive rebounding opportunities. The Wildcats' poor discipline was punctuated about midway through the second half, when guard Tyler Ulis overshot Bruins guard Prince Ali, and Ali, well …
Ali’s posterization of Alex Poythress was the game in microcosm: Kentucky was sloppy, the Bruins were aggressive, and whenever there was a chance for a game-changing play, it was the Bruins who seized the moment.
For UCLA, this is an understandably massive early-season win. It completely flipped the script from last year’s bloodbath in Chicago while showing energy that has too often been lacking in 2015-16, especially in its losses to Monmouth and Wake Forest. A victory like this is the kind that could change the Bruins' season. For Kentucky, the nature of this loss will undoubtedly lead to questions about the team’s toughness and focus, though what the Wildcats should take away from their defeat is that they still have a long way to go before they can even start thinking about reaching the lofty heights of last season’s team.