UCLA overcomes injuries and determined Michigan State team
KANSAS CITY -- Think for one second that UCLA and Michigan State don't understand how much a game like this in November could mean in April?
Unless you were here, unless you saw the real, raw emotion after the game -- the unbridled joy coming out of the UCLA side, and the agony and disgust in Michigan State's silent locker room -- then it's hard to appreciate how much this game meant to each team.
UCLA's 68-63 victory over 11th-ranked Michigan State on Tuesday night in the title game of the CBE Classic in the maiden sporting event in Kansas City's Sprint Arena won't soon be forgotten by either program.
"I want to emphasize that this was a great win, against a great Michigan State team that will go deep in the NCAA Tournament," said UCLA coach Ben Howland, whose adrenaline was still pumping in the hallway outside the locker room after the game. "These games in November are going to matter in March. This will turn out to be a real big win."
Top-ranked UCLA won despite the fact that it didn't have Darren Collison, out with a sprained left knee for the fifth straight game. Shooting guard Michael Roll is still sidelined with a ruptured plantar fascia and probably won't return until December. Swing forward James Keefe is also out until December with a shoulder injury.
But the Bruins out-muscled Michigan State on the back of star freshman center Kevin Love, who faced six Spartans (Raymar Morgan, Marquise Gray, Goran Suton, Idong Ibok, Drew Naymick and Tom Herzog) taking turns guarding him. Love fouled out Ibok and Naymick and put Suton and Morgan into trouble with four each. Yet he still tossed bodies around, took elbows to the head and knocked various other limbs with the Spartans for a 21-point, 11-rebound game (his third 20-point effort already).
Russell Westbrook continued to fill in admirably for Collison (even with the Mohawk). He played 40 minutes, had 13 points, three assists, one turnover and one freaky hyper-extended left knee that only amounted to a brief scare for the shorthanded Bruins.
Josh Shipp made big-time shots late in the game. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute buried an eventual game-winning 3-pointer for his only trey of the night. And Alfred Aboya came up with the steal of the night.
Yet the top-ranked Bruins trailed for all but 28 seconds of the game.
"This win is so big in so many ways," said Collison. "These guys gutted it out. All we're trying to do is put ourselves in an easier [NCAA] bracket like we did last year."
Michigan State had to start with its own MVP Drew Neitzel on the bench, sick from a stomach bug that meant he couldn't keep any food down all day. Neitzel gutted out a 25-minute night but missed a potential game-tying 3-pointer in the waning seconds of the game.
"I wasn't feeling great," Neitzel said later. "I couldn't keep anything down all day, and I had body aches and chills. But it's not every day you get to play the No. 1 team. Hopefully we'll get a chance to play them down the road in March."
"Sure it's early and it's not make or break, but at the same time, this was a huge game," Naymick said. "And if we could get the win, it would have helped propel us into more of a national spotlight and set the tone for the rest of the season."
The game was the Spartans' to win as they ran out to a 13-point lead late in the first half. But they got outscored 10-0 to close the game, yielded 22 offensive rebounds and committed 18 turnovers.
"That stat will never happen again," Izzo said of the 22 offensive rebounds. "That's enough to make me sick."
Izzo even added that the stat was an insult to everyone who had played at Michigan State.
"We didn't do the job and they had a couple of fastbreak dunks off turnovers, and that's a killer in a close game like that," Naymick said.
Naymick complimented Love on the freshman's ability to use his body and footwork to his advantage. Naymick, a senior, did hint at some frustration over the way the game was officiated when he called it "tight". Michigan State was whistled for 28 fouls. UCLA committed 18 fouls. Love went to the free-throw line 12 times.
"We just didn't beat him to position, and he could post too easy sometimes," Naymick said. "He did a good job of creating contact and fouls."
This was hardly a classic game, but it was one that will reverberate for months.
UCLA won this game essentially leaning on six players. Collison hasn't played in the regular season. He said he's not ready yet to cut side-to-side and be on the court just yet. But that didn't stop him from being one of the first ones out to chest bump his teammates after the win.
"Me being competitive, I want to be out there," Collison said. "We needed this, we needed a taste of being down. I can't be any more proud of how we played down the stretch."
Don't think for a moment that this neutral-court game in Kansas City didn't matter in November. UCLA won, without its engine in Collison and zone buster in Roll. And Love proved just how much punishment he could take and still stand without getting in foul trouble himself (he had only two).
Now, imagine what UCLA will be like when it is healthy. If it resembles anything close to the team that played with the passion and purpose of the second half, then the Bruins should be on their way to making a third-straight Final Four appearance. Yes, it may be only November, but clearly the Bruins have April on their mind.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.