NEW YORK “”mdash; The stage was set.
UCLA’s blue-ribbon freshman guard Shabazz Muhammad had finally been cleared to play. The Bruins were playing their first meaningful game of the season in a sparkling new arena for the entire country to see, broadcasted on national television.
The No. 1 team in college basketball, Indiana, had advanced just minutes earlier, setting up the Legends Classic final everyone had hoped for.
All the No. 11 UCLA team had to do was hold up its end of the deal was get by unranked Georgetown.
A few hours later, coach Ben Howland found himself trying to explain away a 78-70 loss.
“We’re very young and we really got hurt defensively,” Howland said.
“We had our opportunities.”
The Hoyas opened each half on dominating runs, forcing the Bruins to try to claw their way back into the game twice.
It worked the first time, as UCLA took the lead midway through the first half.
Georgetown’s coach John Thompson III outsmarted Howland at halftime, though, making several adjustments that helped the Hoyas start the second half with a 12-0 run. Thompson credited his players with the corrections.
“Most of the things that were going through my head, they expressed to me,” Thompson said.
“We made a few adjustments and we were fortunate to get defensive stops and rebounds.”
Muhammad was UCLA’s second-leading scorer on Monday night, posting 15 points on 5-for-10 shooting.
He wasn’t in the starting lineup because he is still trying to get his conditioning up to speed, Howland said.
Muhammad missed practice time in the offseason with an ankle injury and shortly before the season with a shoulder strain. He played 25 minutes in Monday’s game, more than Howland had planned.
“I think I missed a lot in terms of gelling with the team,” Muhammad said.
“Missing the summer and missing those first three games really hurt me. I’m going to try my hardest to get back in shape.”
He entered the game five minutes into the first half and immediately knocked down a jump shot, but then the freshman went quiet, missing his next four shots and finishing the first half with just four points.
While Muhammad found more scoring opportunities in the second half, UCLA could not figure out Georgetown’s defense and failed to make use of a size advantage that inspired Thompson to dub the Bruins’ frontcourt “huge.”
Muhammad and his teammates envisioned themselves taking the court tonight in the title game, but instead UCLA (3-1) will face Georgia (1-3) in the consolation game at 4:30 p.m. (PST).
“It doesn’t feel good inside,” Muhammad said.
“I really wanted a shot at (Indiana), but we’re not ready yet.”