TAMPA, Fla. -- So, UCLA nearly blew a 23-point lead?
What else is new?
This is simply the way the Bruins do things this season.
UCLA's 78-76 victory over Michigan State in their NCAA tournament opener Thursday night at the St. Pete Times Forum was just the latest in a long line of blowout victory turned nail biter for the Bruins.
UCLA (23-10) dominated the first 30 minutes of the game, taking a 42-24 halftime lead and extended it to 64-41 with 8:35 to play, but the victory was never going to be that easy. Not with this UCLA team. It never seems to be.
But a victory it was and so UCLA will advance to play second-seeded Florida on Saturday at approximately 11:45 a.m. PT with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.
And for that, Bruins fans can thank, in part, UCLA's proclivity for blowing leads throughout the season.
"We’ve been in a lot of situations like this where we were up by a lot and teams came back, but we dealt with it like we did in the past with a lot of other games," said guard Malcolm Lee.
UCLA has seen double-digit leads shrink to one or two points at least five other times this season, but has managed to win all of those games. In fact the Bruins improved to 21-0 in games that they have held a lead of 10 points or more at some point, but they sure don't make things easy.
Michigan State made 7 of 9 3-point baskets in the final 6:17 and closed to within a point with four seconds to play, but UCLA, as it has done so often this season, walked off the court with the 100th NCAA tournament victory in school history.
"It was just another game like UCLA always has," guard Jerime Anderson said. "We always let teams come back and we really gotta work on that. I mean, I don’t want to say that, but you kind of have to beacuse that's what we've done and frankly, I could care less. As long as we get the win and move on to the next round, that's all that matters."
In fact, you could argue that having so much experience in such situations helped UCLA win Thursday. Michigan State is no pushover. They had been to two consecutive Final Fours with many of the same players still on the team. There was no way the Spartans were going to roll over without making a last-ditch desperate run.
"It definitely helped a lot that we've been there before," guard Lazeric Jones said. "That’s what the games before the tournament are for, to prepare you for moments like this. I felt like everybody was calm out there."