One of the problems this season is the lack of a leader. On the good side, until Zeek got hurt, we had five guys who could lead us in scoring (actually six as Jerime Anderson did it as well) and all of them could take the last shot. But last night there was no doubt whose team it was. Even the columnists at the fishwrap could figure it out:
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.
Sometimes a negative proves a positive. Lee had one bad game, against Oregon in the Pac-10 tourney, where he was tentative after hurting his knee and UCLA was blown out for the only time all season. Lee may be a quiet captain but his teammates get it. Lee scored 7 of the Bruins last 13 points and was an inspiration (emphasis mine):
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.
"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."
But for 30+ minutes this was a team effort. More after the jump.
What I particularly liked was for the first 30 minutes it seemed we were winning the loose balls and getting the breaks because we were hustling and MSU Coach Izzo agrees:
"They outrebounded us bad in the first half," Izzo said. "They got every loose ball. It was the only thing I was disappointed in all night."
Actually CBH would argue, credibly argue UCLA was good all night except for one thing.
"I thought the first 30 minutes we played as well as we have all year," coach Ben Howland said. "If we make our foul shots, I think we win this game comfortably."
Twwl excellent reporter/blogger Peter Yoon has a post on the free throw woes:
Michigan State trailed 64-48 with 6:17 remaining and did what any desperate team would do in that situation: They tried to extend the game by fouling.
The Bruins had only two more field goal attempts the rest of the game, but attempted 22 free throws during the final 5:19 and made only 12 of them.
It got particularly ugly in the waning moments as the Bruins made only three of 12 from the free-throw line in the final 1:31. Michigan State cut a 76-66 UCLA lead to 77-76 with four seconds to go simply with great free-throw defense.
"We've just got to keep working at it," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "We've improved a lot as a foul shooting team from the beginning of the year to where we are now. And it's something that we will do tomorrow. We'll shoot some foul shots tomorrow."
Of course, if the defensive intensity stayed maybe the free throws would not have mattered as much. I don't think the following quote is true of everybody but guess who admitted he slacked up:
"We slacked up by nature; you're going to slack up with a 24-point lead," Honeycutt said. "You know, `There's two points here, there's two points there.' But they end up adding up."
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.
It marked only the third time this year Honeycutt had led or tied for the lead in scoring. Keep inspired Honeycutt for 40 minutes and prove us all wrong.
The rest of the team played solid as well. Josh Smith really changes the game when he is in there. Lazeric Jones toughness is admirable and Reeves Nelson had a double-double. But the most interesting hero is the bench. Beginning with Brendan Lane who did a mini-James Keefe impression:
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.
The bench played arguably their best game of the season as a unit:
Jerime Anderson, Tyler Lamb and Anthony Stover also contributed valuable minutes off the bench for UCLA, but Lane, who has been fairly quiet for the last two months, stood out by scoring a season-high eight points with four rebounds in 19 minutes -- the most he has played since Jan. 9.
"I knew I was going to play a few more minutes tonight because we wanted to keep Reeves [Nelson] fresh," Lane said. "So when I went in there I just tried to play as hard as I can and stay in there as long as I can." . . .
Each player was solid during is minutes. Stover had two blocked shots and played tremendous post defense. Lamb helped keep Michigan State leading scorer Kalin Lucas in check and also took a charge when he was in and Anderson was the steady playmaker and court leader he has been all season for the Bruins.
"I thought our bench gave us tremendous minutes," Howland said.
In closing three quotes, to start a nice fact and an opinion that no one here on BN better argue with:
"I don't think there's anyone better than Malcolm defensively at (his position)," Howland said. "He can guard the one, two, three, he's versatile."
UCLA improved to 33-11 in its opening NCAA Tournament games.
The Bruins haven't lost an NCAA Tournament opener since 2005.
"No sour grapes here," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "We got beat by an aggressive team. They play hard, they play with passion. The right team won tonight."
And the last word, from the captain who earned the right to rip the President, shoot he earned my vote for President at least as long as UCLA plays in the tournament:
"A lot of teams kind of wrote us before this game even though we were the higher seed. We used that as motivation and we came out with a lot of intensity.
"I was saying 'Let's mess up people's brackets.' (President) Obama being one of them."
Thank you Malcolm for last night and a great season, keep it going will ya?