UCLA looks all business in its NCAA tournament opener at UNC Asheville

There is no Furmani here. There is no Princeton here. There’s no late-night craziness or surprising quirks or shining moments here.

No Cinderella, just smashing pumpkins.

UCLA wouldn’t lose its first-round NCAA tournament game against 18-point underdog North Carolina Asheville Thursday night at Golden 1 Center.

Not at all. Not how Not for all the craziness in the world. This was evident in the first three minutes, which went something like this:

opposite UCLA. Asheville Brick. Two UCLA free throws. Asheville Brick. The UCLA tree. Asheville Brick. UCLA’s dunk. Asheville Brick. UCLA’s dunk. Asheville billing. The UCLA tree.

Out of time!

By the time the wildly outmatched Bulldogs could catch their breath, UCLA jumped out to a 14-0 lead, and it was over. A couple of hours later the final score was 86-53, and the final message was one that should have resonated in this maddening March landscape.

UCLA doesn’t mess around.

UCLA won’t be Arizona or Virginia, two respected teams that fell in huge first-day upsets. UCLA is not taking its No. 2 seed. UCLA’s march to the Final Four begins with a sprint. The next stop on this treacherous journey is here on Saturday in the second round against resurgent Northwestern, which also took its first round bye with a win over Boise State.

Given the intensity and focus on Thursday night, stick with the Bruins.

From the moment UCLA lost to Arizona in the championship game of the Pac-12 tournament last weekend, UCLA coach Mick Cronin knew he was in the running.

“They ran into a buzz saw tonight,” Cronin said. “At UCLA we don’t take losing well … we say fun win and we lost our last game and these guys took it personally and you saw how we came out.”

Asheville looked like a decent team. They won 18 of their last 19 games, were Big South champions, had a couple of players…

And UCLA made them look like a befuddled high school team that walked into the wrong gym.

“I was really upset at the beginning of the game,” admitted Asheville star Drew Pember. “I didn’t know what it was going to be like.”

He was relentless. It was terrible. It was like UCLA wearing its best Cronin. “Our defensive intensity and our turnovers early in the game, I think, really rattled them,” Cronin said. “They could never really be comfortable.”

UCLA’s Amari Bailey, left, and Jaime Jaquez Jr. UNC Asheville’s Fletcher Abee battles for a rebound during the first half of the first round of the NCAA tournament in Sacramento on Thursday.

(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

The Bruins’ defense forced the Bulldogs into numerous turnovers, wild air balls, foul passes and mass confusion. And the Bruins were without their big stopper, Adem Bona, who was cleared to play but remained on the bench as he continues to recover from a shoulder injury. They also missed the absence of Jaylen Clark, their defensive leader, who is out for the season with an Achilles injury.

Clark will be missed later. Bona will eventually have to play if he wants to progress. But for now, the savvy and relentless mindset of the Bruins’ veterans seems stronger than any one player.

“We try to get the young guys … to understand that this is one championship and we don’t want this to end,” said Jaime Jaquez Jr., one of the Bruins’ three veteran leaders.

The NCAA tournament is famous for its first-round upsets, but more telling are the first-round blowouts. Whether a good team is poised for greatness can be told by how it handles its business against an inferior opponent in the opening game.

Teams that seriously compete for championships often begin their journey with defeat. Judging from Thursday night, UCLA looks like one of those teams, just look at the performance of those three senior spark plugs.

Jaquez was a nice leader with 17 points. Campbell had his best game with 10 assists. And David Singleton, after going scoreless in the Pac-12 championship game against Arizona, drove for the first basket of the game and connected on a three-pointer.

Add to all of that Amari Bailey’s freshman Madness debut with 17 points and backup center Kenneth Nwuba’s four-for-four night, and the Bulldogs never stood a chance.

“It was just a surreal feeling,” said Bailey, key to the team’s good fortune. “I mean, I just had chills running through my body.”

Do you want surreal? How about Russell Stong’s famous drive in the final two minutes of the NCAA tournament and, again, the crowd roared.

A couple of weeks from now this game will probably be remembered as irrelevant. But considering UCLA’s history, it’s a big deal.

Remember, for a school that has won 11 NCAA national titles, the Bruins still have an incredible history of losing these first-round games.

The season before they won the national title in 1995, they lost in the first round to Tulsa. The season after winning the title, they lost in the first round to Princeton.

Both of those losses came on Jim Harrick’s teams, but Harrick wasn’t the only coach stung.

Detroit Mercy defeated Steve Lavin’s Bruins in 1999. Then, in perhaps the ugliest early exit, Steve Alford’s Bruins lost to St. Bonaventure on a snowy night in Dayton, Ohio, in a 2018 game.

Cronin has flirted with first-round losses in both of his championships since coaching the Bruins, with his team blowing away Michigan State in overtime in 2021 and then winning four against Akron last season.

This is not one of those seasons. This is not one of those groups. And on Thursday night, the college basketball world witnessed just that.

“It doesn’t surprise me … these guys are trained,” Cronin said. “At UCLA we play to win.”

Earlier in the week, Campbell echoed that sentiment. “We’re here to win games, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Campbell said. We’re not really worried about everyone else.’

In fact, everyone else may have to worry.

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