The only nervous moments came several hours before tipoff.
A slew of massive upsets put UCLA on high alert against another Cinderella seeking a sprinkling of March magic.
None would be found after an early Bruin blitz of baskets eased any lingering fears. UCLA would not go the way of Arizona or Virginia and get eliminated on the NCAA tournament’s opening day.
The big question facing the second-seeded Bruins during an 86-53 first-round rout of 15th-seeded North Carolina Asheville on Thursday at the Golden 1 Center was how much rest the starters would get.
Everyone besides David Singleton was given the final 5 minutes 46 seconds off.
The victory was so comfortable that the Bruins did not need to use freshman center Adem Bona, who was cleared to return from the left shoulder injury that had sidelined him since a Pac-12 tournament semifinal against Oregon.
He’ll likely play Saturday when UCLA (30-5) faces seventh-seeded Northwestern in the second round Saturday in a high-stakes preview of future Big Ten rivals.
There was no need for Bona on Friday given the dominance of backup big man Kenneth Nwuba. With two dunks and a layup, the fifth-year senior logged his career high for points in only 41/2 minutes. Nwuba 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.
The overmatched Bulldogs were also powerless to stop UCLA’s Jaime Jaquez Jr. The Pac-12 player of the year made one crafty move after another on the way 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 scored 11 points less than a week after going scoreless in the Pac-12 tournament championship game.
A final highlight came in the closing minutes when reserve guard Abramo Canka sank a three-pointer and walk-on Russell Stong IV grabbed a rebound.
The moment looked awfully big for Asheville (27-8) in the opening minutes. UCLA ran its offense like it was going five-on-zero while the Bulldogs looked completely rattled on both ends of the court. The Bruins scored the game’s first 14 points, Singleton capping the run with a three-pointer and a fist pump as Asheville called timeout.
It didn’t get any better for the Bulldogs, who fell behind by as many as 23 points in the first half. Their best players, Drew Pember and Tajion Jones, both airballed 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, outrebounding the Bulldogs by 15 and outshooting them, 54% to 37.3%
Maybe none of it should have come as a surprise given that the Bruins showed up here loose and ready to master the moment.
Jaquez walked into UCLA’s media session Wednesday wearing a blue-and-gold beanie and holding up his phone to record the scene. He answered one question in Spanish — “rusty,” was the assessment of the Spanish-speaking reporter he indulged — and explained his thinking behind the various hairdos he’s sported over 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 it all off just to be born again.”
At the team’s practice open to the public, Canka buried a halfcourt shot and Jaquez just missed while facing the other direction and flinging one over his shoulders.
“Just enjoy it,” Jaquez had said earlier, describing what was important about being in this event. “It goes by fast, so enjoy every moment, play your heart out.”
Balancing his team’s exuberance with a sobering realization of how quickly the fun can end, UCLA coach Mick Cronin said that everything the Bruins did all season was geared toward this tournament. That included creating a detailed scouting report for Pember, the Big South Conference player of the year.
Cronin compared Pember’s veteran savvy to a player who had been a professional for 10 years and said coaches had compiled a highlight tape of his blocks that were largely based on timing.
“He’s not even a great athlete,” Cronin said, “and he leads their league in blocked shots.”
The Bruins were more than ready for the challenge, persevering for at least one more.
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