Many have made a case that UCLA "collapsed," allowing the Spartans to get back into a game that the Bruins led by 23 points with just 8:23 left in the second half.
Yes, UCLA did miss its free throws down the stretch, making just 3 of 12 in the last 1 ½ minutes, and that definitely allowed Michigan State to continue to threaten.
But it wasn't so much as a collapse as a number of factors coming together to allow MSU to make that run, like some slack officiating and the Spartans making some prayer three-pointers.
The officiating was key, actually, in contributing to Michigan State's comeback. The call of a foul on Malcolm Lee on Draymond Green, and calling the basket good after Green hung on the rim was inexplicable. The rules are that you can hang on the rim to protect yourself, and let's concede that Green needed to do that. But then, if hanging on the rim makes the ball go in the basket it can't be counted. Plus, it was a complete phantom foul because it didn't appear that Lee even touched Green. And that play was a huge momentum changer. Then Lazeric Jones was called for a charging foul with about 2:40 left in the game with UCLA up 10 points, when he was clearly tripped into the defender. Michigan State responded a few seconds later with a three-pointer to make it a 7-point deficit, and that made for potentially a five-point flip within just a few seconds.
Michigan State, down the stretch, was using high-ball screens to open-up three-point shooters, and consistently the screens were moving. It wasn't just minimal movement, but considerable. Those non-calls were particularly consequential, allowing MSU to get the space its outside shooters needed to rain in threes.
We'll give the refs a bit of credit, though, for making that traveling call on Michigan State's last possession.
The three-pointers certainly did come down like rain. In the last six minutes of the game, they shot 6-for-9 from three, on some quick, out-of-sync shots without a great deal of room. It was just one of those things that happen sometimes. UCLA continued to go on top of the screen, and with the screens moving, even slightly, it gave MSU a bit of time, but they also got particularly fortunate for all of those six three-pointers to go in.
If Michigan State coach Tom Izzo had known the refs weren't going to call those moving screens and his outside shooters would be able to hit those hurried shots, he would have been running that as his primary offense the entire game.
What if UCLA had decided to not trail on top of the screen and switch at that point? With a fatigued, young team team, which has struggled with defending screens, in the heat of battle, down the stretch of their first NCAA tournament game, it probably wouldn't have been a good idea to have them change the tactic that they've taken an entire season to try to master.
The other significant shift that led to Michigan State's run was their push in getting offensive rebounds. In the first half, and through the first 10 minutes of the second half, MSU was getting very few second chances. But UCLA started to look a bit fatigued against the very physical Spartans, and didn't have near as much energy on the defensive boards. It was also a matter of MSU putting up longer shots, which rebounded off quite a bit more randomly, allowing MSU to get the longer rebounds.
So, yes, UCLA did some things that contributed to MSU's comeback, particularly missing those free throws, but even if they had made the majority of them, the Spartans would have still be in the game with the uncanny three-point shooting.
Up until the last eight minutes or so, UCLA had played some of its best basketball of the season, due to a few factors.
UCLA had good energy on defense, led by Malcolm Lee's warrior-like effort on MSU's high scorer, Kalin Lucas, who didn't score until that the six-minute flurry at the end of the game. But not only did Lee defend well, generally UCLA did as a team. There were very few breakdowns on screens, and some active help defense. In the second half, with Josh Smith and Reeves Nelson in foul trouble, UCLA went with a not-so-offensive lineup of Lee, Lazeric Jones, Tyler Lamb, Brendan Lane and Anthony Stover, and they produced a series of very good defensive trips, with tight, focused defense. UCLA needed a stop gap to get it to the point it could put in Smith and Nelson again, and that crew, with its defense, got them there. Stover looked a little over-hyped at times, but settled down and had two nice blocks. There has to be particular credit given to both Lamb and Lane, who had very good defensive games. Once Smith re-entered the game he, too, played well defensively, with Lamb and Smith both taking charges during UCLA's push in the first 10 minutes of the second half.
UCLA seems to benefit in the Howland era when it plays non-conference teams that just don't seem as familiar with Howland's offensive sets as the Pac-10. UCLA's conference opponents over the years have it down what Howland's sets are going to do, but Michigan State looked clueless. So many of the sets we all know and can predict as soon as we see them start to execute them worked efficiently against the Spartans. It's perhaps why Howland has done well in the NCAA Tournament – because his offensive sets are less scouted and far more effective.
Offensively, UCLA did stay with the mantra of Feeding the Post, trying to get Smith and Nelson touches inside consistently. Smith's ability to physically over-match his opponents is almost an optical illusion. If you see the guys defending him out of the context of standing next to Smith they look pretty big, and they are – most of the time being 6-8 or 6-9 and 230 to 260 pounds. But when they try to guard Smith they look like they suddenly got a Lap Band and went on a crash diet. In this game, Smith was physically over-powering and MSU knew it. They tried to deny him the ball, but when he did catch it they clearly went to the Hack-a-Shaq mentality in the second half since they were unable to stay with him as he moved to the basket. Not to slight Nelson, but the MSU defenders seem to relish being able to match up against Nelson after having to body up on that man mountain of Smith. He is clearly the difference-maker on the team, and when his teammates realize it, and feed him in the post, UCLA is a tough match-up.
A poster on the UCLA Premium Hoops Message board, dhbruin said: "Feed post + good D = tournament noise."
If UCLA itself could just get that permanently implanted in their mind, then you might have something.
Honeycutt showed a little more concern for the outcome of the game than he typically does. He had some key plays, making a long-distance three-pointer, which was actually an ill-advised shot, pulling down some big rebounds and making some timely blocks. He also dragged UCLA through a very troubling sequence early in the second half when he seemed to decide he was going to take every bad shot he could. It was pretty much a case of Honeycutt potentially winning the game for you or losing it.
Nelson played, for the most part, under control and focused on both ends of the court, finishing with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Michigan State's physicality around the basket bothered him some, but to his vast credit he didn't back down.
Lee, of course, as we said, was a warrior. To turn in the defensive performance he did against Lucas, with a torn ligament in his knee, and also score 16 points, get 5 rebounds, 2 assists and 3 steals against just 1 turnover was one of the best performances by a Bruin this season.
It's a big worrisome that Howland keeps utilizing Jones more than Jerime Anderson at this point. With Jones' injuries to both hands, Anderson has clearly emerged as the more effective, and while Anderson has gotten increased minutes in the last few weeks, there are still many critical times in the game when it seems Anderson would be better suited on the floor than Jones.
So, despite many of the pundits trying to label the game as a one-line story of UCLA averting a "collapse," it wasn't. In fact, you probably should take more confidence in this team away from the game. Not one player on this roster had even scored in an NCAA Touranment game before this one, and they played one of their best games of the season.