UCLA dodges upset trend, opens NCAA tournament with rout of UNC Asheville
The only nervous moments came several hours before tipoff.
A slew of massive upsets put UCLA on high alert against another Cinderella seeking a sprinkling of March magic.
None would be found after an early Bruins blitz of baskets eased any lingering fears. UCLA would not go the way of Arizona or Virginia and get eliminated on the NCAA tournament’s opening day.
The big question facing the second-seeded Bruins during an 86-53 first-round rout of 15th-seeded North Carolina Asheville on Thursday at the Golden 1 Center was how much rest the starters would get.
Everyone besides David Singleton was given the final 5 minutes 46 seconds off.
The victory was so comfortable that the Bruins did not need to use freshman center Adem Bona, who was cleared to return from the left shoulder injury that had sidelined him since a Pac-12 tournament semifinal against Oregon.
He’ll likely play Saturday when UCLA (30-5) faces seventh-seeded Northwestern in the second round in a high-stakes preview of future Big Ten rivals.
No one loves UCLA basketball more than David Singleton, the senior sharpshooter who is sure to have his teammates hyped for another NCAA tournament run.
There was no need for Bona on Thursday given his team’s dominance in every facet while building a 21-point halftime lead that it stretched to 33 points in the second half.
“It doesn’t surprise me because we lost our last game and we don’t take losing lightly,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said, adding that senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. was as upset as he had ever seen him after the team’s setback against Arizona in the Pac-12 championship. “We play to win at UCLA. It’s not OK to lose. When we lost Saturday, I wasn’t happy, but I knew it was going to help us.”
Another huge assist came from big man Kenneth Nwuba. With two dunks and a layup, the fifth-year senior logged his career high for points in only 41/2 minutes. He was so effective that his teammates kept feeding him passes on the way to 10 points on four-for-four shooting to go with four rebounds and two blocks.
“What does that feel like? Amazing,” Nwuba said of contributing so heavily alongside fellow reserve big man Mac Etienne, who scored 10 points on five-for-five shooting.
The overmatched Bulldogs were also powerless to stop Jaquez. The Pac-12 player of the year made one crafty move after another, finishing with 17 points and eight rebounds while making all five of his career-high five steals in the first half.
“I think we’re playing a lot for Jaylen this tournament,” Jaquez said, referring to teammate Jaylen Clark, who is out with a lower-leg injury. “I took a page out of J-Rock’s book, trying to get steals, trying to be active with my hands, try to do it for him.”
The Bruins also got a boost from freshman guard Amari Bailey (17 points, six assists), senior guard Tyger Campbell (seven points, 10 assists) and Singleton, who scored 11 points less than a week after going scoreless against Arizona.
The moment looked awfully big for Asheville (27-8) in the opening minutes. UCLA ran its offense like it was going five on zero while the Bulldogs looked completely rattled on both ends of the court. The Bruins scored the game’s first 14 points, Singleton capping the run with a three-pointer and a fist pump as Asheville called timeout.
It didn’t get any better for the Bulldogs, who quickly fell behind by 23 points. Their best players, Drew Pember and Tajion Jones, both airballed three-pointers and Pember (13 points) did not score until more than 10 minutes had passed.
UCLA dominated in every category, forcing 16 turnovers while committing only eight, outrebounding the Bulldogs by 15 and outshooting them, 54% to 37.3%. The Bruins also pulverized Asheville, 56-24, in points in the paint.
“That’s what you got to do in games like that,” Cronin said. “If you don’t, your size and athleticism isn’t a factor, then it doesn’t matter if you’re a high-major or mid-major. You’ve got to high-major them, and we did tonight physically.”
Maybe none of it should have come as a surprise given that the Bruins showed up here loose and ready to master the moment.
The UCLA Bruins have won more NCAA men’s basketball championships than any other school. But it’s been awhile.
Jaquez walked into UCLA’s media session Wednesday wearing a blue-and-gold beanie and holding up his phone to record the scene. He answered one question in Spanish — “rusty,” was the assessment of the Spanish-speaking reporter he indulged — and explained his thinking behind the various hairdos he’s sported over his four years at the school.
“I try to go through my hair, I treat it like the phoenix,” he said. “I let it grow, I cut it all off just to be born again.”
What about those upsets earlier in the day? Cronin said they had no bearing on his team.
“We don’t believe in false motivation,” Cronin said, “so we don’t believe that you need your home crowd to win. We don’t believe you need two starters to win. We believe that you need toughness and togetherness, playing hard and smart. There’s always a way to win.”
Sometimes, like Thursday, it comes easier than expected.
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