Eschewing the turbulent trend, UCLA opens the NCAA Tournament by defeating UNC Asheville

SACRAMENTO CALIFORNIA, March 16, 2023 Jaime Jacques Jr. of UCLA fights for a rebound as Asheville's Jamon battle in the first half of the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Sacramento on Thursday.  (Wally Scalig/Los Angeles Times)

Jaime Jacques Jr. of UCLA fights for a rebound with Jamon Battle of UNC Asheville in the first half of the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Sacramento on Thursday. (Wally Scalig/Los Angeles Times)

The only nervous moment came several hours before the tip.

Put a large number of colossal disturbances University of California High alert against another Cinderella seeking to sprinkle the magic of March.

Nothing to be found after the Bruins’ early streak of baskets has eased any lingering fears. UCLA will not go through Arizona or Virginia and get eliminated NCAA Tournamentopening day.

The big question facing the second-seeded Bruins during their 86-53 win in the first round of 15y-North Carolina Asheville Seeds Thursday’s Gold 1 spot was the amount of comfort a rookie would get.

Everyone except David Singleton took the last 5 minutes 46 seconds.

The victory was so comfortable that the Bruins didn’t need to use freshman quarterback Adam Bona, who was cleared to return from a left shoulder injury that had sidelined him since the Pac-12 Championship semifinal game against Oregon.

He likely plays Saturday when he faces seventh-ranked UCLA (30-5). North West In the second round in a high-stakes preview of the future Big Ten contenders.

Bona was not needed on Thursday given his team’s dominance in every aspect while building a 21-point lead in the first half that extended to 33 in the second half.

“It doesn’t surprise me because we lost our last game and we don’t take losing easy,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said, adding that senior forward Jaime Jacques Jr. was as upset as he’d ever been after the team’s setback. Against Arizona in the Pac-12 Championship. “We’re playing to win at UCLA. It’s not OK to lose. When we lost on Saturday, I wasn’t happy, but I knew it would help us.”

Another huge help came from big man Kenneth Noba. With two dunks and a layup, the fifth year freshman scored a career high for points in just 41/2 minutes. He was so effective that his teammates kept feeding him passes on his way to 10 points on four-for-four shooting to go with four rebounds and two blocks.

“What does it mean to feel?,” Noba said of his powerful contribution alongside backup senior Mac Etienne, who scored 10 points on five-for-five shooting.

The overrun Bulldogs were also powerless to stop Jaquez. This year’s Pac-12 player made one crafty move after another, finishing with 17 points and eight rebounds while having a career-high five steals in the first half.

“I think we’re playing a lot with Jaylen this tournament,” Jackies 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 steal, trying to be active with my hands, trying to do it for him.”

UCLA's Dylan Andrews drives past Asheville's Tajeon Jones at UNC to score a basket.

UCLA’s Dylan Andrews leads UNC’s Asheville Tajeon Jones to score a basket in the first half of the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Sacramento on Thursday. (Wally Scalig/Los Angeles Times)

The Bruins also got a boost from freshman guard Amari Bailey (17 points, six assists), senior guard Tiger Campbell (seven points, 10 assists) and Singleton, who scored 11 points less than a week after losing to Arizona.

The moment seemed too big for Asheville (27-8) in the opening minutes. UCLA executed their offense like they were going five on zero while the Bulldogs looked completely shaky on both ends of the court. The Bruins scored the game’s first 14 points, and Singleton capped the run with a three-pointer and fist pump as Asheville called the timeout.

It didn’t get any better for the Bulldogs, who quickly fell behind by 23 points. His best players, Drew Pember and Tagion Jones, both made three-pointers, and Pember (13 points) didn’t score until over 10 minutes later.

UCLA dominated every category, making 16 turnovers while committing only eight, outselling the Bulldogs by 15 and outscoring 54% to 37.3%. The Bruins also crushed Asheville, 56-24, on points in the paint.

“That’s what you have to do in games like this,” Cronin said. “If you don’t, your size and athleticism aren’t a factor, it doesn’t matter if you’re a high or middle major. You have to progress in their discipline, and we did that tonight physically.”

Perhaps none of it should come as a surprise given that the Bruins here are loose and ready to take over the moment.

Jaquez went into the UCLA media session on Wednesday wearing a blue and gold beanie and held up his phone to record the scene. He answered one question in Spanish—”Rusty,” was the assessment of the Spanish-speaking reporter who indulged him—and explained his reasoning behind the various hairdos he sported during his four years at the school.

“I try to straighten my hair,” he said, “and treat it like a phoenix.” “I let it grow, I cut it all off just to be born again.”

How about those disturbances earlier in the day? Cronin said they have no influence on his team.

Cronin said, “We don’t believe in false motivations, so we don’t think you need your home crowd to win. We don’t think you need rookies to win. We think you need to be tough and solid, play hard and smart. There’s always a way to win.”

Sometimes, like on Thursday, it’s easier than expected.

This story originally appeared Los Angeles Times.

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