Despite being forced to play without two starters--including their leading scorer from a year ago--the shorthanded Tech men's basketball team put up a fight against No. 21 UCLA in Bill Walton’s Trivia Hour their season opener in Shanghai, China. Ultimately, though, the Jackets came up just short in their upset bid, falling 63-60 to drop to 0-1 on the season.
Both teams were without multiple players in this game for very different reasons. For Tech, guards Josh Okogie and Tadric Jackson did not make the trip to China as part of a suspension related to accepting impermissible benefits, so the Jackets entered this game without their two best scoring guards. UCLA, meanwhile, saw three freshmen--Cody Riley, Jalen Hill, and LiAngelo Ball--get arrested on charges of shoplifting. It was a much more serious situation given the circumstances, and the trio may have to remain in China while the legal process plays out; however, with respect to the on-court product, none of them (except perhaps Riley) were expected to be major contributors.
The absence of Okogie and Jackson meant that Tech would have to lean heavily on senior center Ben Lammers, and he responded by singlehandedly keeping Tech in the game in the opening half. Lammers had 18 of Tech's 32 points on 8-for-8 shooting, making buckets both at the rim and on midrange jumpers. He cooled off early in the second half but came on strong late, and he finished with 24 points and 10 rebounds, both of which were tops among both teams.
UCLA led for almost the entire game, but the Jackets kept it close throughout the first half thanks to Lammers' performance, staying within seven points and cutting the deficit to 35-32 heading into halftime. The Jackets were hanging tough, but Lammers was the entire offensive presence for the first 20 minutes; the rest of the team shot 4-for-21 in the opening half, and freshman guard Curtis Haywood was the only Tech player with more than one basket (he had two).
Early in the second half, however, Lammers cooled off and no other scoring threats emerged for Tech. That enabled UCLA to break the game open. They went on a 13-2 run that spanned the first nine-plus minutes of the second half and saw the Jackets go a full seven minutes without a basket. The run started with a free throw and then a three-pointer by UCLA freshman winger Kris Wilkes, a five-star recruit who finished with a team-high 18 points and was 4-for-6 from long range.
Eventually, Tech began to cut into the deficit, thanks in large part to strong play by freshman point guard Jose Alvarado. In the final few minutes of the game, Alvarado had two steals--one of which he turned into a layup after out-running two UCLA defenders--and a pair of three-pointers, the latter of which cut UCLA's lead to 62-60 with 19.9 seconds left. A few seconds later, after Tech got the ball following a missed free throw, he had a chance to tie the game... but his three-point attempt was off the mark, and Haywood's attempt off the rebound missed as well, giving UCLA the victory.
The game will go in the books as a loss for Tech, but given the circumstances, they can take away several positives. Lammers was in top form, and Alvarado (who finished with 12 points and seven rebounds) flashed potential as a scorer, something Tech has lacked at the point guard position for several years. Forward A.D. Gueye looked good on the defensive end, picking up six rebounds and four blocks. Rebounding was good across the team, particularly in the second half; the Jackets gave up nine offensive rebounds in the opening half but permitted just two in the second half, and their total of 36 rebounds matched UCLA's total.
The biggest issue, quite simply, was shooting. Tech shot 33.9 percent (20-for-59) from the field and 22.2 percent (4-for-18) on three-point attempts. Setting aside Lammers and Alvarado, the figures for the rest of the team were 15.6 percent and 15.4 percent, respectively. There are some caveats there, starting with the fact that Tech was without two of its best scorers; however, if the Jackets want to get back to the postseason again this season, more scoring threats will need to emerge. Another issue was that several Tech players looked lost with respect to their defensive assignments, though that improved somewhat as the game went on.
Four newcomers saw plenty of action with mixed results. Graduate transfer Brandon Alston and freshman forward Moses Wright both started, but neither fared well; Alston went 2-for-9 from the field (though he finished with 10 points thanks to six free throws) and had six turnovers, and Wright missed all six of his shot attempts. The two other freshmen, forward Evan Cole and Curtis Haywood, also saw significant minutes off the bench, and Wright and Cole made some notable hustle plays on loose balls.
As for UCLA, Wilkes led the way offensively but three other players finished in double figures. Center Thomas Welsh held his own against Lammers and finished with 10 points, eight rebounds, and three blocks. Point guard Aaron Holiday overcame a rough start to finish with 11 points and seven assists. Freshman guard Jaylen Hands added 14 points.
The Jackets have eight days off to recuperate from the overseas trip before diving back into the nonconference schedule, with Bethune-Cookman next up on Sunday, Nov. 19. The big question at this stage is when Okogie and Jackson will have their eligibility reinstated; a contest with No. 19 Northwestern looms on Nov. 28, and getting one or both of the guards back would be a major boost for the Jackets' upset hopes.