ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP)—Fortunately for the Kentucky Wildcats, they played solid defense because their offense was awful.
Erik Daniels scored 14 points and the ninth-ranked Wildcats defeated UCLA 52-50 in the John Wooden Classic on Saturday in a game marked by intense defense but terrible shooting.
Kentucky shot 27 percent to 34 percent for UCLA, surprisingly low percentages for the two schools with the most NCAA basketball titles between them. The Bruins have 11 and the Wildcats seven.
“That just shows defense comes through when you’re down,” Kentucky forward Chuck Hayes said. “If we don’t play no defense, the game is going to be ugly.”
The Wildcats (4-0) led by 17 points in the first half of a game in which they never trailed. The Bruins (2-1) closed within three points three times in the final 7 1/2 minutes, but couldn’t put together a scoring run.
“Falling down 23-6 was really a tough hole to dig ourselves out of,” first-year UCLA coach Ben Howland said. “I’m proud of how we fought back. We’ve just got to get a lot better.”
Cliff Hawkins added 12 points for the Wildcats despite fighting the flu and Hayes had 13 rebounds in front of family and friends who drove six hours from his hometown of Modesto.
“It wasn’t one of our better games, but it was a win,” Wildcats coach Tubby Smith said. “Coming out here was an adjustment, the travel, the tournament-type atmosphere. If we had made some shots, we’d feel better, but we feel good.”
The Bruins limited Gerald Fitch to 1-of-10 shooting. He twisted his knee Friday and couldn’t finish practice. Other than Daniels, Kentucky’s starters combined to shoot 9-of-38.
Dijon Thompson led UCLA with 14 points, while Cedric Bozeman had 12 and Ryan Hollins 10.
“Their press was very tough, but we were just missing easy baskets,” Thompson said.
UCLA got into trouble when 7-footers Michael Fey and Hollins each picked up two fouls in the opening 3 1/2 minutes. Then point guard Bozeman earned his second foul with 13:22 remaining in the half, triggering a cascade of boos from the crowd.
“That was huge for us to get them in foul trouble,” Hayes said. “It took away some of their big men’s aggressiveness.”
“I had to be more hesitant,” Fey said. “That really affected me a lot. I couldn’t play as aggressive as I wanted to.”
UCLA shot 24 percent, but Kentucky wasn’t much better at 29 percent, so the Bruins only trailed 27-17 at halftime. At one point, the Bruins fell behind by 17 points as Kentucky ran off nine straight points and rattled UCLA with full-court pressure.
“We knew we were going to face that kind of defensive pressure and we didn’t handle it well,” Howland said. “At halftime, we were down 10 and it could have been a lot worse. We couldn’t have played any worse. We were tentative and nervous.”
Last Jan. 18, the Bruins managed just 18 points in a half in an 87-52 loss to Arizona—their worst-ever defeat at Pauley Pavilion.
Fey was called for his third and fourth fouls barely two minutes into the second half. The Bruins were desperate for manpower, so he returned just three minutes later.
The Bruins played without promising freshman Trevor Ariza (collapsed lung) and senior T.J. Cummings (academically ineligible), leaving them with just a seven-player rotation that forced Bozeman to play all 40 minutes. Thompson logged 39 minutes and Brian Morrison had 30. Only three players scored in the first half.
“I have to hope for those two kids to come back,” Howland said. “We are very, very thin.”
The undersized Wildcats, who don’t start a player taller than 6-8, outrebounded the Bruins 41-39. Kentucky’s bench is thin, so Hayes, Hawkins and Fitch all played more than 34 minutes.
“We were kind of rushing our shots with the 7-footers in there, hoping it would get the roll,” Hayes said. “Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t.”
UCLA closed to 36-33 on seven straight points, including four by Hollins, with 7:31 remaining. North Carolina transfer Morrison ignited the fans when he tipped the ball away at midcourt from Fitch, who fell. Morrison took off with the ball, scored on a fastbreak layin, got fouled and made the free throw.
Morrison fouled out with 1:50 remaining after scoring all nine of his points in the second half.
Kentucky led 41-33 on consecutive baskets by Daniels and Fitch, who hit a 3-pointer. Hawkins scored the Wildcats’ final seven points.
Kentucky leads the series 6-3, with the last six meetings on neutral courts.
The teams’ most memorable meeting was in the 1975 NCAA championship game. The Bruins won 92-85 for their 10th national title in 12 years under Wooden, who retired after the game. Wooden, 93, was in attendance Saturday and received a prolonged standing ovation.