TAMPA – UCLA's opening NCAA tournament game Thursday was a microcosm of its season.
Awesome one moment. Awful the next.
UCLA built a 23-point lead over Michigan State at the St. Pete Times Forum, then spent the last 8 1/2 minutes of the game attempting to give it away. The seventh-seeded Bruins escaped with a 78-76 victory only after Michigan State's Kalin Lucas traveled while pushing upcourt for desperation shot with two-tenths of a second left.
UCLA's victory overshadowed a brilliant performance from Michigan State junior forward Draymond Green, who had 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists for his second triple-double of the season.
Green became the seventh player to deliver a triple-double in the tournament since the NCAA officially began keeping national rankings for assists, steals and blocks in the mid-1980s. There were eight more "unofficial" triple-doubles in the NCAA tournament – including four by Oscar Robertson and two by Magic Johnson – before that period.
The only other player to deliver an official triple-double in an NCAA tournament loss is Michigan's Gary Grant, who had 24 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists in a 109-97 second-round loss to North Carolina in 1987.
UCLA's Jekyll-and-Hyde performance shouldn't have surprised anyone who has paid attention to the Bruins (23-10) this season. This is the same team that lost four of its first six games, only to win its next six. The Bruins closed the regular season with a stirring overtime victory at Washington State and followed that up with a blowout loss to Oregon in the Pac-10 tournament.
Thursday's near-collapse merely represented the latest instance of UCLA's young roster acting its age. UCLA's starting lineup Thursday featured two sophomores (Tyler Honeycutt and Reeves Nelson), two juniors (Malcolm Lee and Lazeric Jones) and a freshman (Joshua Smith).
"This has happened to us during the year," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "This is not the first time that we've had a lead evaporate. We're now 21-0, though, whenever we get a 10-point lead or more, and that's been good. We've played a lot of tight games, and somehow we've found a way to win more than we've lost. That's been big for us."
UCLA led 42-24 at halftime and extended the margin to 64-31 with 8:35 left before the Spartans (19-15) started to heat up from 3-point range.
"I thought the first 30 minutes of the game we played as well as we've played all year at both ends of the floor," Howland said.
The Bruins still owned a seemingly comfortable 76-66 lead when Nelson made one of two free throws with 1:31 left, but the Bruins went 2-of-10 from the line the rest of the way. They can't afford those types of breakdowns Saturday against second-seeded Florida, which trounced UC Santa Barbara 79-51 earlier in the day.