Shabazz Muhammad

No. 11 UCLA uses key defensive stops late to beat Georgia in Legends Classic

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BROOKLYN, N.Y.– If UCLA’s trip to Brooklyn was written to follow some typical Hollywood script, it would probably begin with the triumphant debut of star freshman Shabazz Muhammad, having defeated the “evil” NCAA, and end with a Legends Classic championship at the brand-new Barclays Center.

This East Coast swing certainly wasn’t storybook, but the No. 11 Bruins kept it from turning into an early-season horror film, making key defensive stops down the stretch to secure a 60-56 victory and third-place finish in the Legends Classic in Brooklyn Tuesday night.

“It would have been a long plane ride home to come out of this New York trip 0-2.” said coach Ben Howland.

“We got off to a really shaky start in the first half, so we had to find our way out of a hole,” Howland said. “One day preparation for a group of guys used to playing man defense at this level is difficult.”

Muhammad, who got his first collegiate start against Georgia in place of the injured David Wear, had seven first-half points on his way to 21 points and four rebounds on the evening. Despite that strong output, arguably the nation’s best prospect is still finding his place in the flow of the UCLA offense.

On that end of the floor, the Bruins tried him in a number of different spots, including posting up, slashing to the basket, and working one-on-one on the perimeter. Not only coming to the team after eligibility issues, Muhammad has been out of basketball workouts due to injury for much of his time so far at UCLA.

“I just wanted to try to help our team out there because we were shorthanded,” said Muhammad. “Mismatches down low and smaller guys down low, I wanted to take advantage of that.”

The Bruins started slow defensively against Georgia, allowing penetration to the basket and easy shots around the rim. The Bulldogs led 15-6 at the under-eight minute media timeout.

Bad shooting, including 1-of-9 from three-point range, plagued the Bruins in the first half. They all but abandoned the perimeter in the second half and worked it inside to Muhammad and others.

“I think that he was more comfortable tonight. We’re learning to play with Shabazz for the first time,” said Howland. “I thought he did a real good job getting to the line, getting fouled, running the floor.”

UCLA led by as many as five points in the second half, coming at the 14:02 mark, but Georgia pulled even with just over eight minutes remaining and it was back and forth for much of the remainder.

A three-pointer by Georgia senior Vincent Williams with three minutes remaining pulled the Bulldogs within one, but increased defensive pressure down the stretch for the Bruins got stops when Howland & Co. needed it most.

Freshman Kyle Anderson bounced back from a zero-point performance Monday night against Georgetown to score nine points and grab nine rebounds. His team’s trip to Brooklyn was his first time playing in his hometown NYC-metro area since arriving in Westwood.

Georgia, having lost three in a row to Youngstown State, Southern Miss, and Indiana, was led by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s 16 points. The Bulldogs worked to overcome a 20-8 deficit at the free throw stripe by working the ball around efficiently and finishing with 13 assists.

“Similar to last night, in the gut of the game, the other team made the plays and we did not,” said Georgia coach Mark Fox. “But let’s give [UCLA] credit tonight.”

Daniel Martin is a writer and editor at JohnnyJungle.com, covering St. John’s. You can find him on Twitter:@DanielJMartin_

BUBBLE BANTER: Key Atlantic 10, Big East bubble games

Kelan Martin, Kyle Alexander
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This post will be updated throughout the night.

Butler (KenPom: 41, RPI; 67) at Seton Hall (KenPom: 31, RPI: 37), 6:30 p.m.
LSU (KenPom: 53, RPI: 76) at South Carolina (KenPom: 45, RPI: 28), 7:00 p.m.
Nebraska at Wisconsin (KenPom: 51, RPI: 62), 7:00 p.m.
Saint Joseph’s (KenPom: 48, RPI: 30) at George Washington (KenPom: 71, RPI: 34), 7:00 p.m.
Missouri at Vanderbilt (KenPom: 35, RPI: 58), 9:00 p.m.
No. 14 Iowa State at Texas Tech (KenPom: 59, RPI: 51), 9:00 p.m.
Michigan (KenPom: 46, RPI: 56) at Minnesota, 9:00 p.m.
Washington (KenPom: 80, RPI: 57) at Utah (KenPom: 44, RPI: 16), 9:00 p.m.
San Diego State (KenPom: 65, RPI: 47) at Fresno State, 11:00 p.m.

PREGAME SHOOTAROUND: Ben Simmons, LSU get tested at South Carolina; more important bubble matchups

FILE - In this Nov. 24, 2015, file photo, LSU forward Ben Simmons (25) drives downcourt as teammate Antonio Blakeney (2) follows in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against North Carolina State in New York. For all of his gaudy numbers, Simmons is still trying to figure out the best way to put the Tigers in position to win. And now the schedule gets harder, starting with Tuesday night's, Dec. 29, 2015, tilt against Wake Forest, followed by the opening of Southeastern Conference play against Vanderbilt and No. 10 Kentucky. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)
(AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: LSU at South Carolina, 7:00 p.m.

LSU attempts to stay atop the SEC standings when they travel on the road to face South Carolina. The Gamecocks have been very tough at home this season and they’re trying to form a potential four-way tie in the conference standings if they’re able to win this one (and Texas A&M wins tonight). It will be intriguing to see how Ben Simmons fares against South Carolina’s stingy defense.

THIS ONE’S GOOD, TOO: Saint Joseph’s at George Washington, 7:00 p.m.

An important game in the Atlantic 10 as Saint Joseph’s heads to the Smith Center to play surging George Washington. The Colonels have won three straight games as they try to stay with VCU and Dayton and make a move to tie the Hawks in the league standings. CBT’s Rob Dauster will be in the building for this one, so make sure to follow him on Twitter for updates.

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH FOR

  1. No. 21 Baylor will have a tough one in the Big 12 when they go on the road at Kansas State. The Wildcats just knocked off Oklahoma and the Octagon of Doom is a very tough place to play, even if Kansas State is struggling in the standings.
  2. No. 16 SMU will try to stay in the lead in the American as they host Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane could really use a road win like this for its postseason chances.
  3. An intriguing Pac-12 contest tips as Washington heads to Utah. The Pac-12 standings are a mess right now, but these two teams still have a chance to make one final move for the regular season title if they start building momentum now.
  4. In the SEC, Alabama hosts No. 15 Texas A&M, a team that has lost three of its last four games. The Aggies will be favored in this road contest, but this one could be interesting because of Avery Johnson’s unique connection to Texas A&M. Avery Johnson Jr., a transfer guard sitting out this season at Alabama, played for the Aggies last season, so he could have some useful tips for his dad on slowing down Texas A&M’s potent offense.
  5. No. 20 Providence will be looking for revenge when they head to Milwaukee to face Marquette. The Golden Eagles currently sit eighth in the Big East standings, but they did win on the road by a point over the Friars earlier this season.