Collapse Dance — UCLA nearly blows 23-point lead in final 8 minutes before nipping MSU 78-76 (bringing Florida to the table)
Yesterday morning, if you knew that UCLA would never trail Michigan State, and would win the game by 2, you would have taken it, gladly. Now, maybe not so much. Last night, the Bruins gave anxiety attacks to many of their fans, by blowing out the Spartans for 31 minutes, before completely losing their composure, and almost giving the game away.
UCLA totally dominated the First Half, outshooting, outhustling, outrebounding, and out-defending MSU. Tyler Honeycutt led the charge, starting the game off with a Three-pointer and scoring 9 Points before the break. Josh Smith, Reeves Nelson, and Anthony Stover controlled the Paint, and Malcolm Lee and Lazeric Jones shut down MSU’s star Guard Kalin Lucas, who went 0-fer, as UCLA took a 42-24 lead into the locker room.
The Spartans made a run in the Second Half to cut the lead to 10 with 13 minutes to go, and Bruin fans started to panic, thinking that the Bruin bubble was about to burst. But UCLA rose to the challenge. With even Brendan Lane contributing — on both ends — the Bruins churned out a 15-2 run, making the score 64-41, with about 8 minutes left. At that point, the fans relaxed, thinking that the game was in the bag. The problem was that SO DID THE PLAYERS.
Suddenly, the Bruins couldn’t get a good shot off, couldn’t protect the ball, and and couldn’t avoid screens to keep the Spartans covered. And suddenly, the Spartans couldn’t miss. MSU hit 7 Three-pointers in the last 8 minutes, quickly whittling the lead down to the nub. It didn’t help that Josh Smith hurt his arm after tripping over a Spartan and had to sit out a little bit, or that Lazeric Jones hurt his injured wrist when he fell on it (while picking up a Charging foul that negated a Nelson dunk), but those excuses do not explain the overall sloppy play and lack of poise, which included missing 8 of 10 Free Throws in the final minutes. On one play, Honeycutt lost the ball around midcourt, and THOUGHT that Jerime Anderson was going to pick it up, so he just stood there motionless as the ball squirted away. But a Spartan beat JA to the ball, and MSU scored. Honeycutt also made a bad, long pass to Smith that led to Smith’s injury. To add to the carnage, Honeycutt also threw an inbounds pass out of bounds, with a minute left. The ensuing MSU 3 cut the lead to 76-72.
On Message Boards, Honeycutt is getting blamed for the meltdown, but it should also be noted that he (along with Lee) led the team in scoring with 16, he pulled down 6 Boards, dished out 4 Assists, and led the team with 3 Blocks. Honeycutt might have been the goat if UCLA had lost, but he may have also been the MVP in the win. With 90 seconds to go, he got a huge Rejection, and with 14 seconds left, he grabbed the game’s biggest Rebound, while sandwiched between two desperate Spartans. Of course they fouled him immediately, and both his Free Throws were in-and-out heartbreaks, but it still forced MSU to use up more time before they hit their 10th Three of the game, which made it 77-76 with 4.4 seconds left.
The Spartans then fouled Lee, who made the first, but missed the second. MSU didn’t have any time outs left, so the tried to hurry the ball upcourt. Unfortunately for them, Lucas traveled as he was being converged on by three alert Bruins. So UCLA had a 2-point lead and possession with 0.2 seconds left. The Spartans threw in the towel, not even guarding the Bruins on the inbounds pass, which mercifully ended the near-nightmare.
The “Comeback That Wasn’t” was over, and the Bruins survived. The Spartans should be congratulated for having a lot of heart — It wasn’t just sloppy Bruin play that changed the game around — MSU really came up clutch, setting brutal screens, and hitting trey after trey, usually with a Bruin arm flying at their faces. But the hole that they dug was just too deep. For 30 minutes, they couldn’t stop Smith (14 Points) in the Key, and they couldn’t score on Lee on the other end. And with Lane actually showing up to add 8 Points, 4 Rebounds, and a Blocked Shot, even Draymond Green’s super-impressive Triple-Double (23-11-10) was not enough to stop the Bruins from advancing to the next Round.
UCLA now faces 2-Seed Florida, who wiped up the court with UCSB in a game that didn’t do anything to tire out the Gators, physically or emotionally, unlike what Michigan State did to the Bruins. In fact, because the Bruins almost choked in trojan-like proportions, they will be exhausted tomorrow, when they are trying to get ready for Florida. And to add to the uphill struggle, Ben Howland teams are historically worse on Saturdays after a short turnaround, than they are on Thursdays, with almost a week to prepare. And the worst part of this upcoming match-up is that the game is IN the State of Florida (Tampa, to be exact), so the Gators will have a TOTAL Home Court Advantage. Hopefully, the Gators will watch only the last 8 minutes of the Bruin/Spartan game, and think that UCLA is no competition for them. Complacency by Florida could be UCLA’s best asset in this game.
And if Florida’s overconfidence isn”t enough, UCLA has one other motivator: They OWE the Gators, for knocking the Bruins out the the Tourney in back-to-back Final Fours in ’06 and ’07. The Jordan Farmar Bruins lost badly to Noah and company in the ’06 Finals, and the Arron Afflalo-led Bruin team lost to Florida in the Semi’s in ’07. Will the 2011 Bruins be able to muster up some School Pride, by reaching back in their memories and developing a desire for Payback?
More importantly, will the Bruins be able to sustain their effort for 40 whole minutes? They showed what they can do for 30, especially on the Defensive end, against a talented Michigan State team, that was ranked #2 at the start of the year, and that is loaded with back-to-back Final Four experience. Now the Bruins have some Tournament experience — Maybe they can use their near-el-foldo to inspire them to a victory on Saturday, that would put them into the Sweet Sixteen.
And if they get to the Sweet 16, one team they WON’T be facing is Steve Lavin’s St. John’s. The Johnnies and their vastly-overrated Coach got their asses handed to them by Gonzaga, who led for the whole second half by double-digits, in a convincing triumph. Lavin, who is known for his Sweet Sixteens at UCLA (where he had teams with Final Four talent), will now be able to watch the rest of the Tournament from a couch in someone’s living room, where he could be sharing a six-pack with troubled sc Coach Kevin O’Neill, or maybe even with wife-betraying Rick Pitino, the sex-in-a-restaurant deviant whose Louisville Cardinals got ousted, ironically, by upstart More-Head State. Too bad Kentucky squeaked by Princeton on a late bucket, or John Calipari could join the smarmy soiree.
Kevin O’Neill tried to excuse the trojans’ pathetic performance in their play-in game by claiming that his trojans were “VIRGINS.” Well, they still are, since they didn’t actually ENTER the Tournament, they just shot their collective wad on the outside looking in. And if Vucevic turns Pro this year, they probably won’t pop their cherries next year either. Of course their Football team does not have these “Big Bang Theory” fan problems — In fact, one of their top recruits just got arrested for sexually assaulting a 16-year old, who was NOT his girlfriend. He admits having sex with her, and allegedly, not stopping when she made it clear that she wanted him too. Well, if Cheating is Winning (just ask Pete Carroll or Charlie Sheen), looks like sc might be about to sign another winner.