NEW ORLEANS -- For once, UCLA is in the headlines for what it did on the court.
That's the way Steve Alford prefers it.
After spending much of the first two months of the season as the sport's center of attention -- mostly because of the fallout from a shoplifting incident in China and the subsequent LaVar Ball-charged airtime it received -- the Bruins closed out their nonconference slate with an impressive 83-75 win over No. 7 Kentucky on Saturday in the CBS Sports Classic that is likely to change the conversation surrounding the team.
The Bruins (9-3) went toe-to-toe with one of the most talented teams in the country on a neutral court and won.
"Really super proud of our guys," Alford said. "They've obviously been through a lot. With travel, nobody in the country has traveled more than we have. Nobody has had the distractions we've had. And yet, these guys have just really stayed close together and just continued to grow. And that's really what November and December is about, trying to grow."
The past two months have been littered with frequent-flier miles, suspensions, the attention that comes with the Ball family and, of course, some tough basketball games. The Bruins have traveled approximately 23,500 miles since the season began (12,960 of that came in the round trip to Shanghai). It was that November trip where three freshmen -- LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill -- were arrested on shoplifting charges that were eventually dropped.
That led to an indefinite suspension of all three. LiAngelo was later pulled out of school by his father, LaVar, and on Friday the team announced that Riley's and Hill's suspensions would extend for the remainder of the season, though they will be allowed to practice and participate in team meetings beginning Tuesday.
With decisions made and the drama officially in the rearview mirror, the Bruins played crisp, sound basketball Saturday. The Wildcats (9-2) are more athletic and more talented, but UCLA outrebounded them, outshot them and simply played better in crunch time.
When Kentucky whittled a 12-point UCLA lead to just four with 3:34 remaining, it was junior point guard Aaron Holiday's steady hand that made the difference. He hit a jumper with 2:26 left to extend the lead to six. Then, with 33 seconds left, Holiday drove past Kentucky's Wenyen Gabriel and floated a left-handed layup just over Gabriel's outstretched arm to put the game away.
For a relatively young group -- five of the Bruins' eight rotation players didn't see court time for UCLA last season, three true freshmen and two redshirts -- it was an important victory at the end of a roller-coaster nonconference schedule. Holiday (20 points, eight assists) played the kind of point guard that the Bruins need. Fellow guards Kris Wilkes (20 points, five rebounds) and Prince Ali (12 points), and center Thomas Welsh (13 points, 11 rebounds) all hit big shots and combined for eight 3-pointers among them.
As a team, the group showed great poise, even when the mostly pro-Kentucky crowd got loud in important late-game moments.
"It means a lot," Holiday said. "First off, it shows that we can win even though we're young. [Secondly], it shows that we're actually good. I'm tired of people saying that we're not good just because we have mishaps at the end or whatever it is. It just shows our team chemistry and how good we are right now at a young age."
The Wildcats, who are the youngest team in the country with an average age of 19.43 years old, made plenty of youthful mistakes and have much to learn. Kentucky coach John Calipari lamented that his group got beat "to every 50/50 ball" and settled for jump shots too often. The loss will give the Wildcats something to chew on until they play in-state rival Louisville on Dec. 29.
For Alford, the coming week will be important. The Bruins have a brief break for Christmas then host Washington State on Dec. 29 to start their Pac-12 slate. How the team behaves after such a big win is something Alford will watch closely.
"I like where we're at going into league play," Alford said. "I like the demeanor of this team, and now we've got to be able to handle success moving forward, beating a very good basketball team. How we handle that success now opening things up against Washington State is going to be a key."