Kris Wilkes skipped off the court, a wide smile splitting his face. The UCLA freshman forward could not contain his excitement after the most momentous victory of his college career.
“Yeah, baby!” Wilkes shouted. “Yeah, baby!”
In a coming-of-age moment for the Bruins, they showed precociousness over the final minutes of an 83-75 victory over No. 7 Kentucky on Saturday at the Smoothie King Center in the CBS Sports Classic.
UCLA (9-3) built a 12-point lead with 7½ minutes to go and maintained more than enough composure to hold on for a triumph that significantly enhanced their NCAA tournament chances. The Bruins exchanged hand slaps and chest bumps on the court after the final seconds ticked off the clock.
“It shows that we’re actually good,” UCLA junior guard Aaron Holiday said after clinching the victory with a driving layup and two free throws in the final 33 seconds. “I’m tired of people saying that we’re not good just because we have mishaps at the end or whatever it is. So it just shows our team chemistry and how good we are right now at a young age.”
Holiday was alluding to a recent loss against Michigan in which the Bruins frittered away a 15-point lead in the second half. They made all the necessary plays this time to prevail in a game of wild momentum swings that included a 21-2 run for UCLA bridging the end of the first half and the start of the second.
Freshman point guard Jaylen Hands showed poise in running the offense alongside Holiday in the final minutes. Senior forward GG Goloman made a crucial steal along the baseline. Wilkes made two free throws with 1:06 left on the way to matching his career high with 20 points.
“I think right now it helps our young guys understand you can beat a team like this,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said, “and now there’s a belief.”
That’s not to say there weren’t moments of doubt.
The Bruins nearly gave their entire 12-point advantage back in the final minutes, stirring reminders of the Michigan collapse. Kentucky (9-2) drew within four points twice and forward Kevin Knox missed a three-pointer that would have made it a one-point game.
But there were also continual signs of growth for UCLA. A visibly winded Holiday asked Alford to give him some rest for what the coach said was the first time in his career. Holiday returned with 2:56 left after a breather that lasted 76 seconds on the game clock to score six of his 20 points while avoiding turnovers.
“All I kept saying was, ‘We got 30 seconds, so we just got to take care of the ball and run the shot clock all the way down and we’ll be in good shape,’ ” said Holiday, who starred on the same court where his brother plays for the New Orleans Pelicans. “So that’s what we did.”
It was the third consecutive season the Bruins have defeated a highly ranked Kentucky team after beating the top-ranked Wildcats at Pauley Pavilion in 2015 and at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., in 2016. Of course, Kentucky won the most meaningful recent matchup between the teams, defeating UCLA last season in an NCAA tournament regional semifinal.
“It’s been a hell of a ride,” UCLA center Thomas Welsh, who had 13 points and 11 rebounds, said of the series between the teams.
It appeared as if the Bruins fully exhaled one day after learning that freshmen Cody Riley and Jalen Hill would be suspended for the rest of the season for their role in a shoplifting incident last month in China. Alford said he and UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero had been in lockstep about the suspension being for the entire season but had to let the process unfold through the office of student conduct before a final resolution.
“I think it helped the team,” Alford said of the decision. “There was some resolution, just some finality of what it is and I think the guys responded that way.”
Alford said Hill and Riley were committed to remaining part of the team and would not transfer.
“They’ll be back at 8 o’clock on the 26th,” Alford said, referring to the players being allowed to participate in the team’s next practice, scheduled for Tuesday.
Hill and Riley will return to a team that might just be hitting its stride after securing its best two wins of the season on the eve of Pac-12 Conference play.
“We showed a lot to the nation but more importantly to us,” Hands said of beating the Wildcats. “We believe in us and we can go anywhere off of that.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch