NEW YORK – After a terrific East Coast road trip, UCLA coach Mick Cronin is eager to ditch this December chill and savor the spoils in sunshine.
“We’re going home, and it’s going to be 75 (degrees),” he said. “I’m grilling out on Christmas.”
Jaime Jaquez Jr. had 19 points and 12 rebounds as No. 16 UCLA turned back No. 13 Kentucky 63-53 in a matchup of college basketball royalty Saturday night at Madison Square Garden.
Jaylen Clark added 15 points and eight rebounds, and Tyger Campbell also scored 15 for the streaking Bruins (10-2). UCLA won its seventh straight game and passed another early test away from Pauley Pavilion following an 87-60 blowout Wednesday night at No. 20 Maryland.
“We know what we’re capable of if we play with the toughness we played with this week,” Cronin said.
Freshman forward Chris Livingston led the Wildcats (7-3) with a career-high 14 points off the bench, and Sahvir Wheeler had 11 points and six assists.
Big man Oscar Tshiebwe, the consensus 2022 national player of the year, pulled down 16 rebounds but was held to eight points – two in the second half – on 4-of-12 shooting as the Bruins double- and triple-teamed him.
“I haven’t lost any faith in the team. I’m disappointed,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “There’s a lot of things that I would say, like, we’re better than this. But we’re going to have to show it.”
UCLA owns 11 national championships, most of any school, while Kentucky ranks second with eight. Chanting fans of both blue-blood programs packed Madison Square Garden for a CBS Sports Classic game the Bruins led almost the entire way despite hitting only two 3-pointers and going 7 for 15 at the free throw line.
“MSG is something I’ve always wanted to be a part of, always wanted to play in,” Jaquez said. “When I found out we were coming here, this was marked on my calendar. … I’m just so happy we won here.”
After trailing by 13 late in the first half, Kentucky went into the break down eight, but opened the second period on a 13-5 spurt behind eight points from Livingston to tie the score twice.
Jaquez responded with a basket inside before feeding David Singleton for a 3-pointer that capped a 6-0 spurt, and the Bruins held on the rest of the way. Kentucky trimmed it to 55-53 with 4 1/2 minutes left, but Campbell hit a tough basket in the lane and UCLA scored the final eight points to pull away.
“I would say that became a bloodbath. At some point, I don’t know, it became a Big East game,” Cronin said. “We were really tough down the stretch on the backboard and loose balls, and that was the key for us.”
UCLA: The experienced Bruins made 11 steals and stamped themselves legitimate title contenders with another impressive win against tough competition away from home. They are 7-0 since consecutive losses in Las Vegas to then-No. 19 Illinois and then-No. 5 Baylor in November.
“We had a lot to prove this trip,” Jaquez said. “We knew that we dropped two in Vegas, and we knew we were a much more capable team than we showed. We were on a mission to get better every day and prepare for this and show the world what we can do.”
Kentucky: Despite a whopping 21 offensive rebounds, the Wildcats were outrebounded 43-42 overall and struggled in every other facet on offense. They shot just 33% from the field, including 6 of 21 from 3-point range (29%), and went 5 for 13 at the foul line.
“We miss so many open shots, it becomes demoralizing, and the crazy thing is we still could have won the game,” Calipari said. “We have good shooters. We’re one of the better 3-point shooting teams, and we missed.”
Kentucky also committed 18 turnovers, 12 in the first half, and did not score a point on the fast break. The Wildcats are still looking for their first win over an AP Top 25 opponent this season. They had won four in a row since losing 88-72 at then-No. 2 Gonzaga on Nov. 20. Kentucky also lost in double overtime to Michigan State on Nov. 15.
“We’ll get better,” Calipari said.
New York Knicks power forward Obi Toppin, the reigning NBA slam dunk contest champion, was in the stands with family at his home arena cheering on his younger brother. Kentucky senior Jacob Toppin, born in Brooklyn, had a rough night though, scoring only five points on 2-for-10 shooting. He did grab seven rebounds. Obi Toppin is currently sidelined by a knee injury.
UCLA: Will host UC Davis from the Big West on Wednesday before resuming Pac-12 play after Christmas with a visit to Washington State on Dec. 30.
Kentucky: Plays host to Florida A&M on Wednesday night before opening the SEC schedule with a trip to Missouri on Dec. 28.