UCLA men’s basketball’s season opener might have been in Shanghai, but the Bruins’ pair of All-Americans came to play.
Freshmen guards Jaylen Hands and Kris Wilkes combined for 32 points as UCLA (1-0) built a single-digit lead in the second half, but the outcome of the game came down to a frantic, last-possession 3-point attempt from Georgia Tech guard Jose Alvarado.
Alvarado’s shot bounced off the back of the rim, and the Bruins escaped with a 63-60 victory over the Yellow Jackets (0-1) on Saturday afternoon in Shanghai.
Wilkes made his first three 3-pointers and scored 14 of his team-leading 18 points in the first half. His performance countered that of Georgia Tech center Ben Lammers, who went 8-of-8 in the first half for 18 points and finished with 24 points.
But aside from Wilkes, the 2017 Indiana Mr. Basketball, and Lammers, the defending Atlantic Coast Conference Defensive Player of the Year, both teams struggled from the field. The Yellow Jackets shot less than 35 percent and the Bruins hit only 40.7 percent of their field goal attempts, and both teams shot under 40 percent in the second half.
UCLA entered this season with an emphasis on playing with a fast tempo and pushing the ball upcourt, but it didn’t score any fast break points.
Turnover issues plagued the UCLA again after its 24 turnovers led to 27 points by Cal State Los Angeles in an exhibition game last week. The Yellow Jackets transitioned to a 1-3-1 zone midway through the second half and the Bruins gave the ball away 14 times, leading to 18 Georgia Tech points.
Junior point guard Aaron Holiday, who iced the game with seven points in the last five minutes, led coach Steve Alford’s squad with four turnovers, but also had a team-high seven assists.
The Bruins’ other returning starter, senior center Thomas Welsh, scored 10 points on 5-of-8 shooting and pulled down eight rebounds. After making both of his 3-pointers in last week’s exhibition game, Welsh missed his only attempt against Georgia Tech.
Playing without forwards Cody Riley and Jalen Hill and guard LiAngelo Ball – the three freshmen arrested for shoplifting near the team’s hotel in Hangzhou – Alford’s rotation only went eight players deep. Seven Bruins played double figure minutes, led by Welsh’s 37 and Holiday’s 35.