Wildcats Grew from Earlier Defeat to UCLA
Following Kentucky’s five-point home loss to then-No. 11/9 UCLA on Dec. 3, freshman guard Malik Monk used the words “great” and “wonderful” in succession to describe what the defeat meant to the Wildcats.
Monk, even at the ripe age of 18 years old at the time, knew both he and his teammates would grow from that loss and become better for it.
“Because we never got down like this or anything like that before,” Monk said at the time. “Seeing this is great for us.”
Now, as the two famed programs claiming the most national titles in college basketball history (19 combined), prepare to face off again Friday at approximately 9:39 p.m. ET in Memphis, Tennessee, for a spot in the Elite Eight, Monk’s words couldn’t ring more true.
To truly understand Monk’s words though, one must first look back to where Kentucky had been. The Wildcats were 7-0 at the time and ranked No. 1 in the country by both the Associated Press and the USA Today Coaches’ Poll.
Kentucky had scored 100-plus points in each of its previous three games, it hadn’t played a game closer than 21 points all season and its average margin of victory was north of 30. In fact, in the game immediately preceding its one against the Bruins, UK had demolished another Pac-12 school, Arizona State, by 46 points, and freshman guard De’Aaron Fox had logged just the second triple-double in school history.
But everything changed against UCLA.
Kentucky got off to a slow start, forcing head coach John Calipari to use his first timeout just 80 seconds into the game.
“We didn’t have the energy,” Coach Cal said. “I had to call a timeout a minute into the game. I mean, just wasn’t the same team.”
Kentucky (31-5), the No. 2 seed in the South Regional, has experienced that same problem off and on throughout the season, including a three-game stretch to close out the regular season in which it trailed by double figures during the first half of all three games.
The difference is that in each of those three games, two of which came against future NCAA Tournament opponents, the Wildcats were able to rally and get the win. Kentucky rallied against UCLA as well, going on a 16-4 run to take an eight-point lead, but then let its foot off the gas, allowing the Bruins to go on a 25-8 run to close out the first half and open the second half.
“We knew if you gave them open 3s they were going to knock them down,” senior forward Derek Willis said after that game. “We had a lot of lack of discipline, defensive lapses. Just got to crack down on them. I think consciously be more aware of that. Like, every possession matters. Can’t have plays like that because when it comes time for March Madness or even the SEC tourney, those plays will cost you a game.”
UK cut into the Bruins’ 14-point second-half lead at various points, but couldn’t ever get enough consistent defensive stops to get over the hump. Those stops finally came for UK with 30 seconds left trailing by 11, but it was too little too late as the Cats were able to narrow the gap to three points before UCLA senior guard Bryce Alford hit a pair of free throws to seal the win. It was UK’s fifth home loss under Coach Cal in 129 games.
As the season has progressed, so too have the Wildcats’ maturity and experience. Aided by three seniors playing the best basketball of their careers, including a pair of Kentucky natives who have now each seen 15 NCAA Tournament games, this is a Wildcats team that isn’t quite as young as its headlining trio of star freshmen might indicate.
“We’ve had so many close games,” Monk said. “We had a couple blowouts. We know every team is going to bring their best so we’ve seen everything. We’re not going to panic or anything.”
“We’re way more together (than we were in December),” Monk added Sunday. “At that point, we were individuals – somebody would try to take over the game by their self. We’re way more together, pass the ball around and whoever has the hot hand, get him the ball.”
The Wildcats are much more mentally tough now too, according to the players, but in their first go round with the Bruins they were “physically manhandled,” per Coach Cal.
While much of the focus was on UCLA’s star freshman point guard, Lonzo Ball, it was a different freshman, 6-foot-10 forward TJ Leaf, who “dominated the game” with 17 points on 7-of-12 shooting, 13 rebounds and five assists.
“He killed us,” Calipari said of Leaf. “Straight-line drives, rebounds, making shots. We left him a couple times. He played.”
Kentucky is coming off a second-round win over a Wichita State team with a deep frontcourt known for attacking the glass. It was a team with a frontline so stout and deep that even its head coach was warning UK freshman Bam Adebayo that he better be in great shape for the game.
What transpired was Adebayo went for 13 points, 10 rebounds and a game-winning block on the perimeter. Meanwhile, the Shockers’ “three-headed monster” of Shaquille Morris, Rauno Nurger and Darral Willis, Jr., combined for 15 points and 12 rebounds.
On Friday, UK will face another tough front line with Leaf, 7-0 center Thomas Welsh and 6-10 forward/center Ike Anigbogu.
Additionally, UK’s backcourt will have the challenge of facing Ball, who’s projected to be one of the top picks in this summer’s NBA Draft, Alford, who’s in the top five in scoring in UCLA history and is its all-time leader in 3-pointers made, and senior Isaac Hamilton and sophomore Aaron Holiday, who are scoring 14.0 and 12.5 points per game, respectively.
“That’s why you play a season,” Calipari said in December. “The great thing about college basketball is you’d like to learn from close wins, but sometimes it doesn’t work that way, you got to learn from a loss. That’s what we’ll try to do.”
And it appears Kentucky has done just that.