It’s nervous time as UCLA defeats Michigan State, 78-76

Reporting from Tampa, Fla.

It was grow up or go home.

As UCLA’s once-comfortable lead dwindled into single digits in its NCAA tournament opener, Michigan State had the momentum and the core of its last two Final Four teams on the floor.

The Bruins countered with two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman whose postseason experience before Thursday night had mostly involved ordering pizza and watching games on television.

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“We were playing so well and had a big lead and the next thing we know we’re up a few with 30 seconds left and they had the ball,” Bruins freshman center Joshua Smith said. “We had to look at each other and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this.’”

It took a few nervous moments for the postseason novices before seventh-seeded UCLA ultimately prevailed, holding on for a 78-76 victory over the 10th-seeded Spartans in a Southeast Regional second-round game at the St. Pete Times Forum.

2011 NCAA men’s tournament interactive bracket

Michigan State sliced what had been a 23-point deficit to one with 4.4 seconds left when Keith Appling made the Spartans’ ninth three-pointer of the second half to make it 77-76.

The Spartans fouled Malcolm Lee before the Bruins could inbound the ball. Lee made the first free throw and missed the second, but Michigan State’s Kalin Lucas was called for traveling near midcourt with two-tenths of a second left.

Once Honeycutt inbounded the ball to Jerime Anderson, the Bruins (23-10) were on their way to the third round to face second-seeded Florida (27-7) on Saturday afternoon. The Gators defeated the Bruins in the 2006 national title game and a national semifinal a year later.

Things went haywire for UCLA largely because the Bruins made only three of 12 free throws over the final 1:31.

“We make our foul shots,” Bruins Coach Ben Howland said, “we win this game comfortably.”

UCLA pulled through for its 100th NCAA tournament win thanks to the defensive tenacity of Lee and a balanced offensive attack in which four players scored in double figures.

Lee scored 16 points and held Lucas, Michigan State’s leading scorer, to 11 points on four-for-14 shooting. Lucas was scoreless until making a layup off a turnover with 7:45 left in the game, and it came only after Honeycutt dribbled the ball off his shoe to set Lucas up for a breakaway layup.

Video: Ben Howland on UCLA’s victory over Michigan State

“It kind of pushes us to see Malcolm shut down their best player,” UCLA guard Lazeric Jones said. “He stayed on him, fought over screens and made every shot tough.”

Honeycutt said he drew motivation from a verbal slight delivered Wednesday by Michigan State guard Durrell Summers, who said he didn’t think Honeycutt “guards that good or crashes the glass, but he just plays athletic.”

Honeycutt responded with 16 points, five assists, six rebounds, two steals and three blocks. Nelson had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds and Smith shrugged off a hit to his funny bone to finish with 14 points.

The Bruins also got an unexpected lift from Brendan Lane. The sophomore forward provided a season-high eight points off the bench, including a hook shot that gave UCLA a 64-41 lead with 8:35 left before things started to go astray.

“They’ve been in those kinds of situations many times,” Lee said of the Spartans. “We knew they were going to come back.”

UCLA made Michigan State (19-15) look like the postseason neophyte early, thoroughly flustering the Spartans on the way to a 42-24 halftime lead. Lucas missed all eight of his first-half shots, a stunning display of inefficiency for a player who had dropped 30 points on Purdue last week in the Big Ten Conference tournament.

“With a team like that, you’ve just got to be aggressive, just got to hit them in the mouth first,” Smith said, “and that’s what we did in the first half.”