Dodging the angry trend, UCLA opens the NCAA tournament with a win over UNC Asheville

Sacramento, Calif., March 16, 2023 – UCLA's Jaime Jaquez Jr. battles for a rebound with UNC Asheville's Jamon Battle in the first half of the first round of the NCAA tournament in Sacramento Thursday.  (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. battles for a rebound with UNC Asheville’s Jamon Battle in the first half of the first round of the NCAA tournament in Sacramento on Thursday. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

The only nervous moments came several hours before the tip.

A series of massive upsets put UCLA on high alert for another Cinderella looking for a pinch of March magic.

None would be found after an early Bruin blitz of baskets allayed any lingering fears. UCLA would not go the route of Arizona or Virginia and be eliminated on the opening day of the NCAA tournament.

The big question facing the second-seeded Bruins during an 86-53, 15-round first-round lossth-seeded North Carolina Asheville on Thursday at the Golden 1 Center was how much rest the starters would get.

All but David Singleton got the final at 5:46.

The win was so comfortable that the Bruins didn’t have to field freshman center Adem Bona, who was cleared for return after a left shoulder injury that sidelined him since a Pac-12 semifinal against Oregon.

He’ll likely play on Saturday when UCLA (30-5) meets the seventh-ranked Northwest in the second round in a high-stakes preview of future Big Ten rivals.

Bona was not required on Friday given the dominance of tall backup man Kenneth Nwuba. With two dunks and a layup, the fifth-grader scored his career-high for points in just 4½ minutes. Nwuba was so effective at the low post that the Bruins kept feeding him passes and he finished with 10 points in four-for-four shooting with four rebounds and two blocks.

“How does that feel? Amazing,” Nwuba said of his strong contribution alongside Mac Etienne, a big reserve man who scored 10 points in five-for-five shooting.

The losing Bulldogs couldn’t stop UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. either. The Pac-12 Player of the Year made smart move after smart move en route to 17 points, eight rebounds and a career-high five steals. The Bruins also got a boost from freshman guard Amari Bailey (17 points) and Singleton, who had 11 points in less than a week after going scoreless in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game.

A final highlight followed in the closing minutes when reservist Abramo Canka sank a three and Walk-on Russell Stong IV grabbed a rebound.

“It doesn’t surprise me because we lost our last game and we don’t lose lightly,” said UCLA coach Mick Cronin, adding that Jaquez was upset in a way he’s never felt after losing to Arizona had. “We play at UCLA to win. It’s not okay to lose. I wasn’t happy when we lost on Saturday, but I knew it would help us. There’s no question it would help us because I know these guys.”

The moment looked awfully big for Asheville (27-8) in the early minutes. UCLA ran their offense like they were running five-to-zero while the Bulldogs were messed up at both ends of the court. The Bruins scored the first 14 points of the game, Singleton capping the run with a three-pointer and a fist bump when Asheville called a timeout.

UCLA's Dylan Andrews drives past UNC Asheville's Tajion Jones for a basket.

UCLA’s Dylan Andrews drives past UNC Asheville’s Tajion Jones to score a basket during the first half of the first round of Thursday’s NCAA tournament in Sacramento. (Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

Things weren’t going any better for the Bulldogs, falling 23 points behind in the first half. Their top players, Drew Pember and Tajion Jones, both air balled three-pointers, and Pember (13 points) only scored after more than 10 minutes.

UCLA dominated in every category, forcing 16 turnovers while committing just eight, overtaking the Bulldogs by 15 and outperforming them 54% to 37.3%.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as a surprise, considering the Bruins were easygoing and ready to take on the moment.

Jaquez entered UCLA’s media session Wednesday wearing a blue and gold cap and holding up his phone to record the scene. He answered a question in Spanish – “rusty,” was the assessment of the Spanish-speaking reporter, to whom he indulged – and explained his thoughts behind the different hairstyles he wore during 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 everything off just to be reborn.”

At the team’s practice, which is open to the public, Canka buried a half-field shot and Jaquez just missed while looking the other way and tossing one over his shoulders.

“Just enjoy it,” Jaquez had previously said, describing what was important about being at the event. “It goes quickly, so enjoy every moment, play your heart out.”

Balancing his team’s exuberance with a sobering realization of how quickly the fun can end, Cronin said that everything the Bruins have done all season has been centered around this tournament. This included producing a detailed scouting report for Pember, the Big South Conference Player of the Year.

Cronin compared Pember’s accomplished veteran to a player who had been a pro for 10 years and said coaches put together a highlight tape of his blocks based largely on timing.

“He’s not even a great athlete,” Cronin said, “and he leads their league in blocked shots.”

More than up for the challenge, the Bruins insisted on at least one more.

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.


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