It was back to basketball for UCLA, and for that the Bruins could be thankful.
One of the most straining weeks in the program’s recent history ended with a season-opening 63-60 victory over Georgia Tech on Friday night in the Pac-12 China game at the Baoshan Sports Center in Shanghai.
The No. 21 Bruins were missing freshmen LiAngelo Ball, Jalen Hill and Cody Riley, who remained at a hotel in Hangzhou about 100 miles away, their futures uncertain after being questioned in connection with the alleged theft of sunglasses from a high-end designer store.
Their troubles could run much deeper.
An ESPN reporter tweeted during the game that there was surveillance footage of the players stealing from three stores inside the swanky shopping center near their hotel. The reporter also tweeted that the UCLA players would not accompany their teammates home on the flight to Los Angeles and could remain in China for another week or two while the legal situation was resolved.
The Bruins held on for the victory after the Yellow Jackets missed two three-pointers in the final seconds. UCLA freshman forward Kris Wilkes finished with 18 points in his collegiate debut and freshman point guard Jaylen Hands added 14 points.
Georgia Tech’s Ben Lammers scored 24 points but had only six after halftime.
Pac-12 Conference commissioner Larry Scott said during halftime of the game broadcast that he was“incredibly disappointed that a situation has arisen that’s distracted from all the amazing experiences that the student-athletes are having here.”
Scott said Pac-12 and UCLA officials were closely monitoring the situation and that any discipline the players might face outside of that imposed by Chinese officials would be at the discretion of their school. A more pressing concern, for those associated with UCLA and the Pac-12, was a speedy return home.
“The players are being treated well,” Scott said. “I have no qualms at all in terms of the way they have been treated but this is very different from the U.S. system. It’s hard to anticipate exactly what’s going to happen.”
UCLA’s starting lineup remained unchanged from its only exhibition game, but the Bruins’ depth took a major hit down three players. The team used only three players off the bench, half the number coach Steve Alford had predicted his team might utilize this season.
Georgia Tech was also shorthanded because of troublesome circumstances. The Yellow Jackets’ top two returning players, sophomore guard Josh Okogie and senior guard Tadric Jackson, did not make the trip after being suspended indefinitely for receiving impermissible benefits from a booster.
Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner was dealing with his own controversy after that booster, a former longtime friend of Pastner’s, told CBS Sports that Pastner was aware he had temporarily housed Okogie and Jackson and had encouraged the booster to “make sure my players are happy and that we’re winning games. Whatever it takes.”
Former UCLA great and ESPN analyst Bill Walton referenced the circumstances that have tarnished his alma mater early in the game broadcast in his own flamboyant way.
“I am sad, disappointed and embarrassed,” Walton said. “This is a very big deal. … I want to apologize right now on behalf of the human race for this travesty.”
The three Bruins in limbo presumably watched the game because the televisions in their hotel in Hangzhou were equipped with ESPN.
Bolch reported from Los Angeles.