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No. 11 UCLA knocks off the top-ranked Wildcats in Kentucky

Long after Rupp Arena had emptied, fans streaming through corridors in quiet resignation, Bryce Alford lingered in a corner of the 40-year-old building with his immediate and extended family.

There were hugs, handshakes and smiles all around. Alford accepted congratulations from UCLA boosters and athletic department officials before posing for a photo with his father, Steve, and brother, Kory, everyone pulling in tight. Moments earlier, Bryce Alford had held his phone high above his head, snapping a picture of the scoreboard.

The image could trigger delight for generations to come: UCLA 97, Kentucky 92.

The No. 11 Bruins more than kept pace with the top-ranked Wildcats on Saturday in their first trip to this college basketball mecca. They nearly lapped them.

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In a stunning display of composure amid one of the most hostile environments in any sport at any level, UCLA took a giant step toward greatness. Then the Bruins downplayed ending Kentucky’s 42-game home-court winning streak as if it were just another victory against an overmatched opponent.

“A lot of people just think we played out of our minds,” UCLA freshman power forward T.J. Leaf said after a coming-of-age performance in which he tallied 17 points, 13 rebounds and five assists. “I mean, we played a good game, nothing special. That’s who we are.”

The Bruins (9-0) are a team that has made a compelling case to supplant the Wildcats (7-1) as the nation’s best. They were shaky at the start and finish but oh-so-special over the game’s deciding middle minutes.

“They physically manhandled us,” Kentucky Coach John Calipari said. “You don’t see that too often, especially in this building.”

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There was a somewhat frightening finish for UCLA after Derek Willis pulled Kentucky to within 95-92 with 8.3 seconds left on a three-pointer following a flurry of Bruins turnovers. No biggie. Bryce Alford made two free throws and teammate Gyorgy Goloman bounded onto the court from the bench with both arms raised in triumph after Kentucky missed a three-point attempt to seal the outcome.

UCLA continued its balanced approach, all five starters scoring in double figures and point guard Aaron Holiday adding 13 points and four assists off the bench during what might have been a game-saving performance amid freshman Lonzo Ball’s epic first-half struggles.

Ball missed his first four shots, was beaten by a few De’Aaron Fox crossover dribbles that led to Kentucky baskets and had four turnovers before making a three-pointer in the final seconds before halftime, shaking his head on the way back up the court as the Bruins went into the locker room with a 49-45 lead.

Ball hardly sulked. He finished with 14 points, seven assists and six rebounds to go with his six turnovers, including a steal and a breakaway dunk that gave the Bruins an 80-71 lead after Kentucky had made a second-half surge.

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“After the game he said, ‘Hey, you know what, if I have a bad game like that, I’m going to come through in the end,’ ” Bryce Alford said, “and we’re like, ‘Dude, we know. You don’t have to tell us.’ ”

The moment wasn’t too big for Ball or any of the UCLA freshmen. Backup center Ike Anigbogu had a block and a massive putback dunk that gave UCLA a 56-47 lead, part of a 27-17 run by the Bruins to start the second half. Leaf buried a three-pointer, drove the baseline for a dunk and made a fadeaway jumper to keep the Wildcats from making it a one-possession game until the final seconds.

“What Leaf did,” Calipari said, “he basically dominated the game.”

UCLA’s second victory over a top-ranked Kentucky team in as many seasons triggered some strong emotions among Bruins legends, particularly after they scored the most points against a Wildcats team coached by Calipari.

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“UCLA WON!!!!” Bill Walton tweeted. “They played so well, I am so happy!!!”

Said Tyus Edney, whose length-of-the-court basket against Missouri in the 1995 NCAA tournament ranks among the most iconic plays in team history: “This was fun.”

Josh Rebholz, a UCLA senior associate athletic director, tweeted that more than 500 tickets had been sold for the Bruins’ game against Michigan next weekend at Pauley Pavilion in the hour after the game ended, leaving fewer than 500 available.

Ultimately, the Bruins showed that they wouldn’t be intimidated by tradition, a scoreboard feature showing weekly highlights of five Kentucky players in the NBA or the scouts from 19 NBA teams on hand to see a handful of potential lottery picks in the June draft.

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“We talk about, ‘Don’t go in and jab around the ring to see if you belong. You’re 8-0. You’re playing well. Trust that you belong,’ ” said Steve Alford, the Bruins’ coach. “That was the key thing that guys did from the tip. They make me not think about anything except enjoying coaching them.”

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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