David Wear, shown back in February, led the way for the Bruins, who got a 116-68… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)
BEIJING — It might have been the strangest night in the history of UCLA basketball.
You could sense it coming from the start, when the team arrived at Tsinghua University's arena and had to get changed in a conference room with a long table down the center and Chinese art on the walls.
After a brief warmup, the players sat courtside, growing antsy, during a long pregame ceremony that included speeches, fireworks and interpretive dance.
At one point, a singer handed them his microphone and they drew perhaps that biggest cheer of the night with an impromptu karaoke version of "I Believe I Can Fly."
"We're on the other side of the world," guard Larry Drew II said. "I was open to anything."
Saturday evening's exhibition game, the first of three the Bruins will play in China over the next few days, provided the final surprise. The 116-68 victory over Tsinghua featured an up-tempo offense unlike anything UCLA fans have seen in recent seasons.
"We really tried to push it," Coach Ben Howland said. "I thought we did a great job of getting the ball out quickly and sharing it."
Junior forward David Wear led the way with 22 points and 15 rebounds. His brother, Travis, had 19 points and freshman Kyle Anderson — starting at guard in his first game as a Bruin — contributed 11 points, 13 rebounds and six assists.
"We were having a great time," David Wear said. "This is how we want to play all year long."
It would be a mistake to read too much into the victory — Tsinghua was hardly NCAA-level competition. But UCLA took a promising first step toward getting its program back on track.
With four highly touted freshmen joining a core of returning veterans, Howland had promised a change from his usual half-court style.
"I think we've got a lot of weapons," he said. "And a lot of opportunities."
He also warned that the Bruins, so focused on offense in practice the past few weeks, might look rusty at the other end of the floor.
Sure enough, they opened a quick lead Saturday night but committed needless fouls and were soon forced to switch from man-to-man defense to zone.
Tsinghua, which made 16 of 35 foul shots on the night, used free throws to stay within a reasonable 16 points at halftime. Then UCLA shifted into another gear.
With every rebound, the Bruins took off running. Drew used his quickness to get the ball upcourt, feeding the Wears and guard Norman Powell, who finished with dunks. Anderson showed a knack for slipping past defenders on the fastbreak.
"It was all the stuff we practiced," Anderson said. "It worked."
Tsinghua responded with a string of three-point shots in the second half, Bin Bin Xie scoring nine points to lead his team. It wasn't enough to stay close.
UCLA center Joshua Smith grabbed an offensive rebound at one point and started to pump fake, only to realize the two men guarding him stood a foot shorter. He simply reached up and laid the ball off the glass for two of his 18 points.
"Josh was very hard for them to match up with," Howland said. "A lot of our guys stood out offensively."
So it mattered little that Anderson was the only freshman to have a big night. Center Tony Parker remained on the sideline with a hamstring injury and Shabazz Muhammad had been left at home, waiting for the NCAA to decide on his eligibility.
Jordan Adams, struggling to find his normally smooth stroke, looked jittery in making only four of 14 attempts.
Now the Bruins fly to Shanghai, where they will face Shanghai Jiao Tong University on Monday and the professional Shanghai Sharks on Tuesday.
They are hoping for a repeat showing from their transition offense. It is doubtful either game will match the oddity and comic relief of Saturday night at Tsinghua.
It wasn't just the makeshift locker room and unusual opening ceremony. The small crowd provided a staccato soundtrack, cheering for both teams with brightly colored noise sticks. In China, they are called "shan guang bang" and fans were shan guang banging them like crazy.
Though the arena had large video boards at either end, two girls stood near the baseline keeping score by flipping paper numbers held together by tape.
Afterward, students waited outside the arena to have their pictures taken with the UCLA players — it wasn't anything like a road game at Arizona or Oregon.
"Weird but cool," David Wear said. "I've never experienced anything like it."