The early part of the season has been frustrating for UCLA men’s basketball, with its most memorable headlines stemming from the arrest of three players for shoplifting in China.
The Bruins started to change the narrative Saturday.
UCLA (9-3) upset No. 7 Kentucky (9-2) 83-75 at the CBS Sports Classic in New Orleans.
Junior guard Aaron Holiday and freshman guard Kris Wilkes poured in 20 points apiece to lead the Bruins, who entered the game as 6.5-point underdogs.
It marked the third straight year the Bruins have knocked off the Wildcats in the teams’ regular-season matchup. Kentucky knocked UCLA out of the NCAA Tournament last year in the Sweet Sixteen.
UCLA connected on a season-high 12 three-pointers and played strong defense, holding Kentucky to just 42.6 percent shooting from the field and forcing 14 turnovers.
The teams traded large runs throughout the game, with Kentucky leading by as many as eight points late in the first half before UCLA would open up an 11-point advantage early in the second half.
Down the stretch, the score tightened up, and Kentucky trimmed the lead to just four points with under a minute left.
Holiday sealed the victory, putting the Bruins up 79-73 with an acrobatic left-handed lay-up with 33 seconds to go. He used a ball-screen from senior center Thomas Welsh to get a mismatch against Kentucky big man Wenyen Gabriel, who he easily shook en route to the basket.
Welsh notched a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds. His offensive impact in the post was limited at times by the Wildcats’ zone, which collapsed to prevent the Bruins from getting the ball to their big man, but he delivered from long-range, nailing three of his six three-point attempts.
Freshman guard Jaylen Hands and redshirt sophomore guard Prince Ali scored 14 and 12 points, respectively, to give UCLA five different players in double figures for the game. Ali produced 10 of his 12 in the second half, drilling two three-pointers and also delivering an impressive tip-in that halted a 7-0 Kentucky run.
UCLA stepped up its rebounding in the second half, out-rebounding Kentucky 17-13 in the period after losing the battle on the boards in the first half.
Guard Hamidou Diallo led the Wildcats with 18 points, but took 18 shots to produce them. Gabriel added 16 points and forward Kevin Knox added 15.
With the win, the Bruins close out non-conference play with a 9-3 record. They will open Pac-12 play at home on Dec. 29 against Washington State.