In his first game in UCLA’s lineup, Shabazz Muhammad played like a regular.
He got to the line, he took big shots and he helped the 11th-ranked Bruins avoid what would have been a pretty discouraging loss.
Muhammad scored 21 points and UCLA made enough free throws late to hold off Georgia for a 60-56 win Tuesday night in the consolation game of the Legends Classic tournament.
”It was obviously an important win to bounce back after a disappointing defeat last night,” UCLA coach Ben Howland said.
In the final minutes of a mostly dreary game, UCLA (4-1) took the lead with Muhammad on the bench, on baskets by Travis Wear and Jordan Adams, but the hyped freshman re-entered with 1:58 left to play and the game still in doubt.
”I thought I was really getting more comfortable out there,” Muhammad said. ”I was getting open on the screens and mismatches down low.”
He made two free throws with 1:15 left, then scooped up a loose ball on the other end with a minute remaining and passed to Norman Powell, who was fouled attempting a layup.
Powell made one of his free throws, and the Bruins closed it out at the line to rebound from a tough loss the night before and avoid a long flight back to the West Coast.
”I thought the difference in the game was the free-throw line,” Georgia coach Mark Fox said. ”We didn’t get there enough, they got there a bunch and they outscored us about 14 points at the foul line in a low-scoring game.”
Muhammad actually took more free throws than the entire Georgia team, making eight of 11. The Bulldogs shot 6 of 10 from the line.
”We didn’t make the plays in the heart of the game that we needed to make,” Fox said.
Wear finished with 10 points and eight rebounds for UCLA, and Kyle Anderson had nine rebounds and nine points.
Kentavious Caldwell-Pope led the Bulldogs (1-4) with 16 points and had eight rebounds. Marcus Thornton had 10 rebounds for Georgia.
The Bruins got the second half off to a bright start, tying the game at 30 on Travis Wear’s midrange jump shot.
Georgia’s Caldwell-Pope answered with a quick 3-pointer before UCLA took its first lead following two free throws and Norman Powell’s 3-pointer with less than four minutes gone.
UCLA spent most of the first half playing indifferent-looking defense and missing shots from outside. Georgia took an 11-point lead about 3 1/2 minutes before the break, but the Bruins scored the period’s final six points, helped by Muhammad’s 3-pointer with 2:24 to go.
The play was not helped by the atmosphere. Empty seats outnumbered fans at the Barclays Center, and some of the fans were wearing Indiana gear, waiting for the Hoosiers’ appearance in the title game later in the evening.
”This was a slow game,” Howland said. ”They did not want to get up and down. That was the game plan for them and it was obviously working for them.”
Muhammad played 28 minutes in his first start of the season after playing as a reserve on Monday night in the Bruins’ 78-70 loss to unranked Georgetown. He appeared winded in the final five minutes of the game, and had to take a breather before coming back on for the final two minutes.
The 6-foot-6 Muhammad, one of the most highly sought after high school players last season, was declared eligible by the NCAA on Friday. In his first game, he finished with 15 points on 5-of-10 shooting and was 2 of 4 from 3-point range in 25 minutes.
”We’re learning how to play with Shabazz tonight. We didn’t play with him all summer,” Howland said. ”Obviously he’s got to continue to work to be a better defender, as do all our players.”
The NCAA said that UCLA’s sanctions against Muhammad were sufficient after the school required him to sit out three games and repay $1,600 in impermissible benefits. The NCAA and UCLA found that Muhammad accepted travel and lodging during three unofficial visits to Duke and North Carolina.