UCLA bucks fluky trend, opens NCAA tournament with upset of UNC Asheville

The only nervous moments came a few hours before the point.

A dramatic upset put UCLA on high alert against another Cinderella looking for a splash of March magic.

None would be found when an early Bruin basket eased any fears. UCLA wouldn’t go the way of Arizona or Virginia and eliminate them on opening day of the NCAA tournament.

The big question in Thursday’s first-round rout of 15th-seeded North Carolina Asheville 86-53 by the second-seeded Bruins at Golden 1 Center was how much rest the starters would get.

They gave everyone but David Singleton the last 5:46 off.

The win was so comfortable that the Bruins didn’t have to use freshman center Adem Bona, who was cleared to return after a left shoulder injury that kept him out of the Pac-12 tournament semifinal against Oregon.

He will 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.

Bona was not needed on Friday given the dominance of backup Kenneth Nwuba. With two shots and a card, the fifth-year senior scored points in just 4 1/2 minutes. Nwuba was so effective in the low post that the Bruins kept passing him and he finished with 10 points, four rebounds and two blocks.

Even the overmatched Bulldogs couldn’t stop UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. The Pac-12 Player of the Year made one artful move after another en route to 17 points, eight rebounds and a career-high five steals. The Bruins also got a boost from Amari Bailey (17 points) and Singleton, who were held to 11 points less than a week after being held scoreless in the Pac-12 championship game.

In the final minutes, reserve player Abramo Canka sank a three-pointer and Russell Stong IV grabbed a rebound.

The momentum seemed overwhelming for Asheville (27-8) in the opening minutes. UCLA ran its offense like it was going five-nil while the Bulldogs were absolutely stunned on both ends of the court. The Bruins scored the game’s first 14 points, with Singleton finishing with a 3-pointer and a fist pump as Asheville called a timeout.

UCLA’s Dylan Andrews drives past UNC Asheville’s Tajion Jones for a basket during the first half of the first round of the NCAA tournament in Sacramento on Thursday.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

It didn’t get any better for the Bulldogs, who trailed by 23 points in the first half. Their best players, Drew Pember and Tajion Jones, both hit 3-pointers through the air and Pember (13 points) didn’t score until more than 10 minutes had passed.

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

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Bruins here appeared loose and ready to dominate the moment.

Jaquez walked into UCLA’s media session Wednesday wearing a gold cap and holding up his phone to record the scene. He answered a question in Spanish – “rusty”, he assessed the Spanish journalist – and explained his thinking behind the different hairstyles he has had in the four years he has been at school.

“I try to style my hair, I treat it like the Phoenix,” she said. “I let it grow; I cut everything to be born again.’

During a team practice open to the public, Canka buried a mid-range shot and Jaquez missed as he looked the other way and fired one over his shoulder.

“Just enjoy it,” Jaquez said earlier, describing what was important about being at this event. “It goes by fast, so enjoy every moment, play your heart out.”

Balancing his team’s prosperity with the realization of how quickly the fun can end, UCLA coach Mick Cronin said everything the Bruins did all season was geared toward this championship. That included generating a detailed scouting report for Pember, the Big South Conference player of the year.

Cronin compared Pember’s veteran skills to a player who had been a pro for 10 years and said coaches compiled a remarkable tape of his blocks, largely based on timing.

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

The Bruins were more than up for the challenge, at least to hang on for one more.

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