Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a UCLA team under Steve Alford entered a December matchup against Kentucky as the underdog, and came away with a convincing victory.
Because, once again, that’s exactly what happened, as the UCLA Bruins walked into the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, and walked out with an 83-75 victory over the Kentucky Wildcats.
This was the best performance for the Bruins this season by far. 5 Bruins ended the game with double figures, including 2 of the dynamic freshman in Kris Wilkes (20) and Jaylen Hands (14). The Bruins were efficient for the most part on offense, shooting 47.5% on 29-61 FGs, including 12-30 from 3, one of their best marks of the season. The Bruins were even great from the FT line, something I haven’t been able to say often this year, as the team went 13-15 from the charity stripe.
On defense, the Bruins did a good job of mixing things up and limiting what Kentucky could do. Statistically, the Bruins held the Wildcats to 42.6% (29-68) shooting from the floor, and actually did do a good job of defending the 3 in this game, only allowing 6 makes on 21 attempts. Kentucky’s dynamic athletes were able to get theirs, led by Hamidou Diallo’s 18 points, but the Bruins made Kentucky earn everything. Diallo, for example, got those 18 points on 18 shots, which makes this Kobe fan proud.
Most importantly, UCLA finally did a good job of closing out a close game. I’ve spent a lot of these post-game threads discussing how UCLA would crumble down the stretch, failing to break the press, running bad offense, and turning the ball over. Hell, that happened just this past Tuesday in a win over South Dakota. So, thankfully, none of that really happened today. Kentucky pressed, and UCLA figured out a way to break it. They managed to get clutch baskets from Aaron Holiday down the stretch, along with key FTs from Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes(!).
Even more impressively, UCLA managed to win convincingly over Kentucky despite a pedestrian performance from Thomas Welsh. Welsh has been huge in past meetings with the Wildcats, with his play tending to dictate if UCLA would win or lose, so John Calipari seemingly made it his mission to limit Welsh as much as possible. Welsh ended up with 13 points on 5-11 shooting, and he missed more than a few shots that he typically makes, but his 3 triples were huge shots, and he still led the team with 11 rebounds.
Interestingly enough, there wasn’t much UCLA really changed in this game (beyond the good FT shooting). The Bruins still had 14 turnovers, around their season average, and there were entire stretches where UCLA looked completely inept on offense. But unlike past games, UCLA was able to get a timely basket to stop Kentucky runs, and played composed basketball when they needed to.
There’s no denying that this was a big victory for the Bruins. Kentucky may not be in late-season form yet, but this is still a talented team, and UCLA was able to put together a complete performance and get a key victory heading into conference play. More importantly, this gives them a shiny victory on their resume come tournament time, and that’s something UCLA may need at the end of the season. Hopefully the Bruins can build off of this performance, and start living up to the preseason hype.
Aaron Holiday and Kris Wilkes led the Bruins with 20 points apiece. Holiday led the team in assists with 8, while Thomas Welsh led the team in rebounds with 11. Hamidou Diallo led the Wildcats with 18 points.
- Player of the Game: Kris Wilkes - Welcome back Kris! After a series of subpar performances, 2017’s Indiana Mr. Basketball had a coming out party, putting up 20 points on 7-15 shooting, including 3-9 from distance. He also went 3-4 from the FT line, which has been a bugaboo of his this season, while collecting 5 rebounds and playing incredibly clean with only 1 turnover and 1 foul. UCLA has needed their freshman to start stepping up, and Wilkes more than delivered in this game.
- Special Shout-out: Jaylen Hands - Aaron Holiday is going to get the accolades for his strong performance in the final stretch, but I need to shout out Hands for also stepping up in a big moment. 14 points on 5-10 shooting including 2 3-pointers, to go with 2 assists and 2 rebounds. More importantly, Hands played clean, with only 1 turnover. Hands has had a bit of a reputation this season of being loose with the ball, but that wasn’t the case in this game, and it showed.
- Point of Emphasis Going Forward: Rebounding. Again. - UCLA actually won the overall rebounding game 37-36, but Kentucky was able to win on the offensive glass 16-11. UCLA outrebounded the Wildcats in the second half 17-13, which showed a commitment to cleaning up the boards in the second half, but Kentucky was able to keep things close and even run out to an 8 point lead in the first half thanks to a dominance on the glass. The Bruins really struggled when Thomas Welsh was out, and while GG Goloman was able to chip in 7 rebounds, the rest of the team struggled to rebound for stretches. Although, to be fair here, I really feel like I’m nitpicking here; this was a good game.
The Bruins have now completed the non-conference schedule, and will enter Pac-12 play starting on Friday, as they host Washington State. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 PM PST.