TAMPA — The Final Four will have at least one new participant this season.
On the heels of consecutive appearances, Michigan State was bounced in its first game of this NCAA Tournament, 78-76 by UCLA at the St. Pete Times Forum in Thursday's nightcap.
UCLA, led by its defensive toughness, takes on Florida on Saturday afternoon.
With Gators coach Billy Donovan and his staff looking on from the front row, the Bruins gave them much to think about with an effort that featured smothering defense, timely shooting and a consistent ability to get to the basket. But Bruins coach Ben Howland said Florida will provide a big challenge.
"They are really talented," he said. "They shoot the ball really well. We know we are up against it."
The loss gave the Spartans their earliest exit from the tournament since 2006, when as a No. 6 seed they lost a first-round game to George Mason, and ends a three-year run of advancing to at least the Sweet 16.
But they didn't go quietly.
UCLA, which led comfortably midway through the second half, had to hold off a furious rally in the final minutes. Taking advantage of UCLA missing 8 of 10 free throws, the Spartans trimmed a 10-point lead with two minutes remaining to one with 4.4 seconds left. Only a Kalin Lucas traveling violation just before the final buzzer prevented him from attempting the winning shot.
UCLA was in control by halftime, leading by 18. No small factor was its defense. Michigan State shot 29.6 percent in the half (40.3 for the game).
Michigan State Tom Izzo said that Howland, a former Pittsburgh coach, "has taken smashmouth basketball to the West Coast. … They just seemed to have more energy than us early."
The second half began with Michigan State displaying a renewed energy. The Spartans trimmed a 20-point advantage to 10 in the first eight minutes, capped by Draymond Green's 3-pointer that brought their fans to their feet.
But UCLA responded.
Tyler Honeycutt's drive and dish set up Reeves Nelson for an authoritative, two-handed dunk. Minutes later, Brendan Lane's 3-pointer from the corner in transition made it 64-41.
"The first 30 minutes of the game we played as well as we have all year," Howland said.
Lucas, Michigan State's leading scorer, missed his first nine shots and didn't record his first basket until 7:44 remained in the game. By then, UCLA had led by as many as 23.
Much of Lucas' struggles were a product of the defense played by guard Malcolm Lee, a Pac-10 all-defensive team selection who also led UCLA with 16 points.
Said Howland: "I think Malcolm is the best defender at his position in the country."