LEXINGTON, Ky. -- They rose with the genteel spirits of a fan base known for loyalty to the Southern kings of college hoops. They brought their joy into the concourses of Rupp Arena, where men and women of all ages spoke with unhinged excitement as they awaited tipoff between two powerhouses, UCLA and Kentucky.
On Saturday, Kentucky and its fans expected to exit their favorite team’s affair against a Pac-12 titan with elevated self-esteem, the brand of borderline arrogance that extended dominance offers the affiliated.
On Monday night, the Wildcats scored 115 points against Arizona State in 40 minutes in the Bahamas -- their third consecutive triple-digit output. They defeated Michigan State by 21 points at the Champions Classic. They forced turnovers on nearly one-quarter of their opponents’ possessions prior to their game against the Bruins.
As a result, the pompoms of middle-aged women clad in blue and white popped while the screams of millennials sailed through the nosebleeds. The fans had prepared their welcome party in a colorful scene at Rupp Arena, with a massive bowl doubling as a giant pitcher plant anticipating the missteps of an opponent it would soon ingest.
Kentucky had won 42 consecutive games at Rupp Arena. The streak commenced after a home loss to Arkansas on Feb. 27, 2014. For two whole seasons (2014-15, 2015-16) and parts of two others, Kentucky had not lost at home.
Hours after Saturday’s game, however, Steve Alford and John Calipari approached the postgame dais to discuss No. 11 UCLA’s 97-92 win over No. 1 Kentucky.
With a handful of words, both coaches affirmed UCLA’s new position as a real contender following a season all affiliated with the Bruins intend to forget.
“Hopefully, the guys take a lot of confidence, a lot of momentum away, knowing they can play with anybody in the country," Alford said. "Not just play with anybody in the country -- we can beat anybody in the country.”
Said Calipari: “They manhandled us. They physically manhandled us. And you don’t see that very often, especially in this building.”
The Bruins can play with any team in America. They can win the Pac-12 -- and maybe more. They know that now.
That’s the story: those quotes, those truths. The rest is worth paraphrasing and discussing in snippets. But focus on those definitive, landscape-shifting statements that foretell success for a West Coast program that played so poorly a year ago that disgusted fans flew “Fire Alford!” banners over campus and signed a petition to remove the coach.
Before Saturday, Calipari’s Wildcats drew comparisons to some of his best teams at Kentucky. And it seemed another talented Alford team warranted caution -- not from the staff but from observers and fans who had watched Alford’s former packs of studs in Westwood clank shots off the rim of hype.
Wins over Texas A&M and Nebraska this season overwhelmed few. The Bruins needed something more to send a message to the college basketball world: It’s all different this season.
Even with Lonzo Ball committing five turnovers in the first half -- he finished with 14 points (2-for-8 from the 3-point line), seven assists, six rebounds, six turnovers, one block and one steal -- UCLA ended the game with six players in double-figures. The Bruins nullified any suggestion that they could only explode on offense against undistinguished opponents by collecting 97 points in their 83-possession matchup against a team that entered Saturday ranked third in adjusted defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com.
That vaunted Kentucky frontcourt led by projected NBA lottery pick Bam Adebayo (18 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks) could not stop UCLA’s TJ Leaf and Thomas Welsh, who combined to score 31 points and snatch 15 offensive rebounds. Ike Anigbogu rushed into the lane with the who-wants-a-piece-of-me aggression that Calipari couldn’t find in his big men on Saturday.
The Kentucky coach said he didn’t call for a pregame shootaround. He won’t do that again. Adebayo said his team has to address its approach to games played early in the day and continue to learn because it is a young squad.
But the 12:30 p.m. ET game tipped off at 9:30 a.m. Los Angeles time. Alford started two freshmen (Ball and Leaf), while another underclassman, Aaron Holiday, helped his team salvage Ball’s rocky first half when he scored 13 points (6-for-6 shooting) before the break.
The Bruins competed like the best team in America in a convincing win over the former best team in America.
To make noise on the national scene, UCLA could not simply enter Rupp Arena and compete, though. That isn't sufficient for a team that finished under .500 a year ago. Had the Bruins suffered another loss to a premier opponent, a team they defeated in Los Angeles last year, they would have attracted more doubts about their identity and prospects.
They had to leave the Wildcats and their supporters in a heap of confusion to change the narrative, change the critics, change the projections, change the future. They had to prove they could go on the road and defeat an elite team.
And that’s what the Bruins did. Is UCLA back? Is UCLA a national title contender now? Ask the No. 1-ranked team the Bruins rumbled through Saturday afternoon.
Before the Bruins left Rupp Arena for the team bus, Bryce Alford (14 points) took a selfie with his father and coach. Both beamed. Other UCLA staffers snapped photos of the historic Rupp Arena court.
For the first time in a long time, UCLA had achieved something worth remembering. Alford took a major step toward creating a new future as Kentucky fans left Rupp Arena feeling an unfamiliar sting.