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_