UCLA basketball players take home something valuable from China

SHANGHAI — Less than six minutes remained as the UCLA players huddled on the sideline.

For the first time since arriving in China, they were locked in something resembling a real game, their lead dwindling against a team of professionals called the Shanghai Sharks.

With the crowd growing louder and the public address system pumping rock music, Coach Ben Howland hollered at his players about defense.

“Let’s finish this,” he said.

Over the next few minutes, the Bruins turned key stops into fastbreak points, running away with a 92-63 victory at Yuanshen Sports Center. In the process, they concluded what players and coaches called a valuable one-week swing through China.

“I think we know a little bit more of how we can play together and what we are capable of when we play a whole team effort on defense,” guard Tyler Lamb said. “These three games helped us to see where we stand.”

If nothing else, after two relatively easy victories against college teams in Beijing and Shanghai, Tuesday night’s matchup provided something of a gut check.

The Sharks came into this game without their two best players, guard Liu Wei and former California center Max Zhang. Their coach was gone too, off shopping for the two American players that Chinese Basketball Assn. franchises are allowed to carry on their rosters during the season.

“Right now, we’re working with the guys who will be our role players,” said Shanghai assistant coach Rory White, a former Clipper.

But those role players showed discipline, physical defense and an ability to knock down three-point shots, keeping their team in the game for most of the night.

With former Houston Rockets star Yao Ming watching from the stands — he is a part-owner — the Sharks pulled within seven points in the second half.

That’s when the Bruins turned to a formula they hope will carry them through the coming season, using their athleticism to make stops and push the ball upcourt.

“As soon as we started locking up on defense, we got easy buckets in transition,” forward Travis Wear said. “It just started clicking for us.”

Wear led all scorers with 26 points. Freshman Kyle Anderson continued to impress with 21 points and 11 rebounds.

“I definitely learned you’ve got to play hard every possession,” he said of his week abroad. “Every time you’re out there, you’ve got to give it your all.”

Coaches and players talked about their adventure in terms that extended beyond basketball statistics. The long plane flight and unusual food, the hotel rooms and all-day sightseeing tours — much of it was fun, some was not.

“Everything’s a part of that, even the stuff you don’t like,” Wear said. “As long as you’re going through it together, it all helps.”

The experience could be significant for a roster that blends returning veterans with a highly touted incoming class that figures to contribute immediately.

Though freshman Shabazz Muhammad had to stay home while the NCAA continues to investigate whether he received improper benefits while in high school, Anderson, Jordan Adams and the injured Tony Parker had plenty of time to bond with their new team.

As for Howland, he was happy with the Bruins’ play and relieved to survive the trip — and an extra 10 practices the NCAA allows for teams that play internationally in the preseason — without injury.

“You always worry about that,” he said. “Last year, USC lost one of their best players down in Brazil.”

The coach was so pleased that he let his players and assistants go to a nightclub after the game, everyone waking up a little bleary-eyed for buses that departed for the airport early the next morning.

The Bruins will get a few weeks to rest before the start of individual workouts and then practices beginning in the fall. They feel as if they have a head start on the season.

“This whole thing was huge for us,” Wear said. “We feel like we already know ourselves as a team.”