UCLA has been there before.
Comfortable, easy, breezy, a mai-tai in hand, beach umbrella up.
And then the storm came, and the Bruins had to run for cover.
Only in the end, it was Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas who took a few too many steps, and No. 7-seed UCLA withstood a furious Spartan rally to advance to a Saturday showdown with two-seed Florida after a 78-76 win at Tampa’s St. Pete Times Forum.
After building a 23-point lead with 8 minutes, 35 seconds left, UCLA eased off the gas pedal, essentially grinding to an absolute stop. After a Malcolm Lee missed free throw with four seconds left, it took a travel violation by Lucas with less than a second left to close it out for the Bruins.
“It got closer than we wanted; we weren’t able to make free throws, gave up too many threes,” UCLA sophomore small forward Tyler Honeycutt said. “The game wasn’t close until about the last 10 minutes when they came back. We have to do a better job closing out games. We’ve done this too many times. But this is going to be one of our biggest learning experiences.
“We lose this game, we go home.”
Even as their focus slipped, as their attention to detail waned, the Bruins stayed focused on that simple premise. But at times, it sure didn’t look like it.
Michigan State shot 48.6 percent from the field in the second half after a 29.6-percent first half, hitting 9-of-18 3-pointers after the break.
Meanwhile, UCLA’s free throws clanked off the rim as if immune to the net, the Bruins shooting just 15-of-28, 53.6 percent, from the line in the second half.
“We definitely could’ve made our foul shots down the stretch, and it definitely wouldn’t have been the two-point game it ended there,” UCLA head coach Ben Howland said. “We definitely could’ve hit our foul shots. We’ll practice them (today). We make our foul shots, and we win this game comfortably. We’ll get back to that.”
Ultimately, though, the Bruins weathered the storm.
Only because they built such a sturdy hut, though.
UCLA jumped to a 42-24 halftime lead – the team’s biggest advantage at the break since its season-opening 83-50 win over Cal State Northridge – by playing incredibly tight defense and working the ball inside out.
A balanced offensive effort was spurred by the post play of Honeycutt, freshman center Joshua Smith and sophomore power forwards Reeves Nelson and Brendan Lane. Honeycutt had 16 points, three blocks and two steals, Smith had 14 points, Nelson 12 and 10 rebounds, and Lane had a crucial eight points and four rebounds off the bench.
The Bruins kept rolling early in the second half, slowly and steadily rebounding from each Michigan State spurt, as the Spartans cut the lead to 10 with 13:16 left before a 15-2 UCLA run put the Bruins up 64-41 with less than nine minutes to play.
And then, Michigan State showed why it has advanced to back-to-back Final Fours.
Lucas had 11 second-half points, forward Draymond Green had 19 and backup guard Keith Appling hit three second-half 3-pointers as the Spartans crept back.
“We slacked up by nature; you’re going to slack up with a 23-point lead,” Honeycutt said. “You know, ‘There’s two points here, there’s two points there.’ But they end up adding up.”
They keep adding up, while Howland’s hair keeps disappearing.
Heading into the tournament, he joked with reporters that his brothers both have full heads of hair, and here he is, the before picture in a Rogaine commercial.
Asked if he worried he’d lose his eyebrows after this one, Howland chuckled, corralled his mother who was standing near and threw an arm around her shoulder.
“We have prominent brows in our family,” Howland laughed. “Those will stay.”