UCLA dodges upset trend, opens NCAA tournament with defeat of UNC Asheville

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UCLA’s Jaime Jacquez Jr. fights back with Asheville’s Jaime Battles in the first half of the first round of the NCAA tournament in Sacramento on Thursday. (Wally Scalise / Los Angeles Times)

The only nervous moments came several hours before tipoff.

massive overhaul UCLA On high alert against another Cinderella seeking a sprinkling of March magic.

None would be found after an early Bruin blitz of baskets, which eased any apprehension. UCLA would not go the of Arizona or Virginia and would be eliminated during the opening day of the NCAA Tournament.

The big question facing the second-seeded Bruins during their 86-53 first-round 15 routth-seeded Asheville how comforted Thursday’s starters at the Golden 1 Center.

Everyone except David Singleton was fouled in the last 5:46.

The win was so comfortable that the Bruins did not need to use freshman center Adem Bona, who was cleared to return after suffering a left shoulder injury that had sidelined him since the Pac-12 Tournament semifinal against Oregon. was sidelined.

He likely will play when UCLA (30-5) faces seventh-seeded Northwestern in the second round on Saturday in a high-stakes preview of future Big Ten rivals.

There was no need to seed Friday, given the dominance of backup big man Kenneth Nuba. With two dunks and a layup, the fifth-year senior logged his career high in points in just 4½ minutes. Nuba was so effective in the low post that the Bruins kept feeding him passes and he finished with 10 points, four rebounds and two blocks.

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The over-matched Bulldogs were also powerless to stop UCLA’s Jaime Jacquez Jr. The Pac-12 Player of the Year made one slick move after another on his to 17 points, eight rebounds and a career-high five steals. The Bruins also got a boost from freshman guards Amari Bailey (17 points) and Singleton, who scored 11 points in less than a week without scoring in the Pac-12 tournament championship game.

One final highlight came in the closing moments when reserve guard Abramo Kanka sank a three-pointer and walk-on Russell Stong IV grabbed a rebound.

The moment looked huge for Asheville (27-8) in the opening minutes. UCLA ran its offense like it was going five for zero, while the Bulldogs looked in complete disarray on both ends of the court. The Bruins scored the first 14 points of the game, with Singleton capping the with a three-pointer and a fist pump as Asheville called a timeout.

UCLA's Dylan Andrews gets past Tajion Jones of UNC Asheville to score the basket.

UCLA’s Dylan Andrews gets past Asheville’s Tajian Jones to score the basket in the first half of the first round of the NCAA tournament in Sacramento on Thursday. (Wally Scalise / 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 Tajean Jones, both hit air ball 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, outscoring the Bulldogs by 15 and outgaining them 54% to 37.3%.

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Maybe none of this should have come as a surprise as the Bruins were here on the loose and ready to master the moment.

Jaquez walked into UCLA’s media session on Wednesday wearing a blue and gold cap and his phone in hand to record the footage. He answered a question in Spanish – “rusty”, that was the Spanish-speaking reporter’s assessment – ​​and explained his thinking behind the various hairdos he sported during his four years at the school.

“I try to go through my hair, I treat it like a phoenix,” he said. “I let it grow; I cut everything out for it to be born again.”

In a team practice open to the public, Kanka buried a halfcourt shot and Jacquez just missed facing the other direction and threw one over his shoulders.

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

UCLA coach Mick Cronin balanced his team’s enthusiasm with the realization of how quickly the fun could be over, saying that everything the Bruins did all season was for this tournament. This included creating a detailed scouting report for Pember, the Big South Conference player of the year.

Cronin compared Pember’s seasoned knowledge to a player who had been a professional for 10 years and said that the coaches compiled a highlight tape of his blocks based largely on timing.

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

The Bruins were up to the challenge, determined for at least one more.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times,

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