SHANGHAI, China — An energetic buzz grew as fans poured inside the arena. Lines from concession stands crowded the concourse. Couples smooched on the Kiss Cam. Dancers performed during timeout breaks.
And when the buzzer sounded, one team was victorious, arms raised in triumph, while the other walked away in disappointment.
Almost everything about the University of Washington’s 77-71 win over Texas would be considered normal by college basketball standards — two teams played for 40 minutes, with one winning, and the other losing.
But this particular bout at the Mercedes Benz Arena in Shanghai was historic, it being the first time two U.S teams — NCAA or NBA — played a regular season game in China.
In front of a crowd of 7,188 made up of alumni from the UW and Texas, as well as thousands of Chinese basketball fans getting their first taste of a meaningful U.S. hoops game in person, the Huskies scrapped their way to a six-point victory and opened the 2015-16 campaign with a win.
“It was a really fun atmosphere to play in,” UW head coach Lorenzo Romar said afterward. “We were very fortunate to be involved in a situation like this, being apart of history.”
The game itself, part of a Pac-12 initiative to expand its reach globally, mimicked what you’d expect at Hec Edmundson Pavilion in Seattle or The Drum in Austin, but with a few Chinese twists.
For example, instead of pizza and pretzels, fans had a slightly different menu to order from.
Security guards also looked a bit different.
But aside from a few minor differences, it very much felt like a normal college hoops game.
Prior to Saturday’s game, which ESPN aired in a primetime Friday evening slot, both teams participated in a number of cultural activities throughout the week in China. Student-athletes had a chance to visit the headquarters of Chinese tech giant Alibaba, which was the presenting sponsor of the game.
Alibaba’s branding was certainly all over the place inside the Mercedes Benz Arena on Saturday.
There were also some big names in the crowd on Saturday, as Alibaba executives joined other leaders like Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, UW president Ana Mari Cauce, and former NBA all-star Yao Ming, who received big cheers every time he was shown on the big screen.
You could tell this was a game that counted — the NBA and Pac-12 have played games in China before, but only for relatively meaningless exhibition match-ups — based on the energy inside the arena, which brewed before tip-off and continued throughout both halves. Fans ooh-ed and aah-ed for big plays, as most people weren’t associated with either team but simply cheered and applauded good basketball.
In between timeouts and game breaks, there were your typical fan competitions and Kiss Cams. Just like in the U.S., arena staff in Shanghai also threw out mini basketballs and hats to the crowd.
As for the actual basketball, both teams came out sloppy in the first half, which was unsurprising given that this was the first regular season game. Though the UW and Texas shot a combined 31 percent from the field and had 31 turnovers, the pace was often frenetic and produced some exciting dunks, blocks, and fast breaks.
Many expected Texas to come away from China with a victory, but the inexperienced Huskies — seven freshman, five sophomores, two juniors, and one senior — were gritty throughout the game and particularly toward the end.
“I thought our guys did a tremendous job of hanging in there and scrapping,” Romar said. “They played really tough basketball throughout, regardless of what score was.”
After a 34-34 tie at halftime, the UW jumped out to a nine-point lead midway through the second half. But Texas stormed back and went up 65-64 with just under four minutes left.
The game’s biggest shot came shortly thereafter, with UW senior guard Andrew Andrews draining a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired, putting the Huskies up 71-67 with 3:11 remaining.
“When a big shot is needed, he has the ability to knock it down,” Romar said of his lone senior. “He has had a flair for the dramatic for a long, long time.”
Andrews, who struggled from the field on 4-of-15 shooting but led the UW with a team-high 23 points, was making his second basketball-related trip to China. The Portland, Ore.-native played with a Pac-12 All-Star team in the country last year, but this was his first time — as it was for all the players — competing in a regular season game here.
“It feels really good, coming out for the first game of the season in China, making history with the first one here, and getting our first win under our belt to start the season,” Andrews said.
Afterward, freshman forward Marquese Chriss was asked if it felt any different playing a game in Shanghai versus Seattle.
“It feels the same,” said Chriss, who finished with 14 points. “We just love to play basketball. A gym is a gym.”
But basketball aside, this was definitely a different kind of road trip and one to certainly remember for these young Huskies, a talented group of players that are not only starting to gel on the court, but off of it, as well.
“We are all brothers, we all bond together,” Chriss said. “We spend time together all the time. You don’t ever really see us walking alone. When we walk, we walk in a pack.”
As the post-game press conference came to a close, one Chinese reporter asked the players if they learned any Chinese. They rattled off a few general terms, like “hello,” and “basketball.” But Chriss added one phrase that perhaps symbolizes what this UW team is about.
“Ní, wǒ, wǒmen,” Chriss said. “You, me, we — it’s kind of like a saying our team has.”