So close to blowing it, UCLA thrives and survives in NCAA opener


Reporting from Tampa, Fla.

Standing in the middle of a locker room filled with giggles and yelps, Joshua Smith’s face suddenly went flat.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “I was scared.”

Standing in the corner of a locker room that buzzed like a rumpus room, Tyler Honeycutt’s voice suddenly went soft.

“Man, oh, man,” he said.

It’s nervous time as UCLA edges Michigan State


Those nutty UCLA kids matured Thursday in a 78-76 win over Michigan State in their NCAA tournament opener, but, goodness, those growing pains.

Ouch went the rim as they clanked away much of a 23-point lead in the final 8 1/2 minutes.

Ooof went the floor as they fell over each other trying to catch a Michigan State team that held the ball in the final seconds with a chance to win.

2011 NCAA men’s tournament interactive bracket

The Bruins could have blown it. The Bruins should have blown it. They missed nine of their final 12 free throws. They allowed the Spartans to make nine three-pointers in the second half.

The Bruins came so close to blowing it, they actually dreamed they had blown it.

“I kept envisioning Kalin Lucas coming down the floor to hit a half-court shot to beat us,” said Honeycutt.

But the Bruins didn’t blow it because Lucas, in attempting to live Honeycutt’s nightmare, was correctly called for traveling while being harassed by the Bruins in the backcourt in the final second.

The Spartans star walked. And the frightened, fragile Bruins soared, winning their NCAA tournament opener for the fifth time in six appearances under Coach Ben Howland.

One week after being humiliated in their Pacific 10 Conference tournament opener against Oregon, they somehow channeled missing energy, found new fuel, honored their history, and grabbed the madness by the horns.

Under Howland, such games aren’t just something the Bruins do, it’s something they are.

“Games like this are something that Coach Howland does really well,” said guard Jerime Anderson. “This time of year, he has a way of getting us really focused, we know what these four letters mean on our jersey and we play like it.”

They played like it in the first 32 minutes, then played like it in the final second, thriving and surviving on the shoulders of two players bearing chips.

There was Malcolm Lee, one of the nation’s best defenders who struggled through the Oregon game with a knee injury and who was inexplicably not named the Pac-10’s defensive player of the year.

His orders? Stop the veteran guard Lucas. His response? Done.

Lucas missed all seven of his shots in the first half and finished with as many turnovers as baskets — four — while blowing it on the last play.

“Luckily we were able to take a few hits and just withstand it,” said Lee, who trudged off the floor shaking his head in exhaustion and amazement.

Then there was Honeycutt, an immensely talented athlete who could be soon headed for NBA, but who has never really been respected as a collegian.

Witness the pregame quotes from the Spartans’ Durrell Summers:

“You know, I don’t think he guards that good or crashes the glass,” said Summers.

Well, you know, Honeycutt scored six of the Bruins’ first eight points while crashing the glass, then later took charge during the team’s most stressful moments, finishing with 16 points, six rebounds and two steals.

“Yeah, Coach told me during films session before the game exactly what [Summers] thought about me, and I did take it as motivation,” said Honeycutt.

Of course his coach told him. Leave it to Howland to work all the angles, fill all the gaps, lead a team with no seniors through the flames of an opponent coming off consecutive Final Four appearances, rising from midseason irrelevance to another March march.

The players and fans and media wince at Howland’s tight fist during the season, but everyone is lining up to pump that fist during the tournament, everything changing but the coach himself.

The first thing he said to me after the game?

“Late night,” he said, barely cracking a smile.

One of the main things he took from this game?

“We make our foul shots, we win this game, I think, comfortably,” he said. “But we’ll get back to that.”

Uh-oh. Guess who is probably in some obscure central Florida gym shooting free throws while you are reading this? It was one of Howland’s legendary practices that brought the team out of the carefree attitude that led to the Oregon loss — the longest and toughest Saturday of the year — and it was his sideline demeanor that made them remember.

“I’m surprised he’s got a voice,” said Anderson, smiling. “He gets so stressed out over there.”

And now, their punishing reward, a second-round game Saturday here against Florida, the best team that I saw anywhere Thursday, blowing out UC Santa Barbara in a manner that would blow out nearly anybody.

“But, you know, we’re pretty good too,” said Anderson, smiling, as if he really believes it, and maybe, finally, we should too.