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Plaschke: UCLA looks all business in NCAA tournament opening loss to UNC Asheville


No Furman here. There is no Princeton here. There’s no belated craze or shocking weirdness or brilliant transcendence here.

Not Cinderella, just smashing pumpkins.

UCLA was not going to lose its NCAA tournament first-round game against North Carolina Asheville by 18 points at the Golden 1 Center on Thursday night.

No way. Not as. Not for all the madness in the world. This was evident in the first three minutes, which went something like this:

UCLA Tray. Asheville brick. UCLA two free throws. Asheville brick. Trey from UCLA. Asheville brick. dunk from UCLA. Asheville brick. dunk from UCLA. Asheville Billing. Trey from UCLA.

Time is over!

By the time the terribly outmatched Bulldogs could catch their breath, UCLA led 14-0 and it was all over. A couple of hours later, the final score was 86-53, and the final message should resonate in this maddening March landscape.

UCLA is not playing.

UCLA isn’t going to be Arizona or Virginia, two respected teams that fell to big upsets on Day One. UCLA isn’t taking its No. 2 seed for granted. UCLA is starting its march to the Final Four in a sprint. Their next stop on this treacherous journey is here Saturday in the second round against the resurgent Northwestern, a team that also got serious about their first round with a strong win over Boise State.

Judging by the intensity and focus on Thursday night, he’s still betting on the Bruins.

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

“They came across a buzz saw tonight,” Cronin said. “We didn’t take losing at UCLA well…we spelled a fun win and we lost our last game and these guys took it personally and watched us come out.”

Asheville seemed like a decent team. They had won 18 of their last 19 games, they were Big South champs, they had a couple of top-tier players…

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

“I was extremely nervous at the start of the game,” Asheville star Drew Pember acknowledged. “I had no idea what it was going to be like.”

It was like, relentless. It was like overwhelming. It was like UCLA was wearing their best Cronin. “I think our defensive intensity and our early game deflections really flummoxed them,” Cronin said. “They could never really feel comfortable.”

UCLA’s Amari Bailey, left, and Jaime Jaquez Jr. battle for a rebound with UNC Asheville’s Fletcher Abee in 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 metallic shots, wild airballs, wild passes, and mass confusion. And the Bruins did it without their giant goaltender, Adem Bona, who was cleared to play but sat out as he continues to recover from a shoulder injury. They also didn’t suffer from the absence of Jaylen Clark, their defensive leader who is out for the season with an Achilles tendon injury.

They will surely miss Clark later. Bona will eventually have to play if she wants to advance. But for now, the smart, unwavering mindset of the Bruins veterans seems more powerful than any player’s.

“We’re trying to make young guys … understand that this is a unique tournament 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 most telling are its first-round losses. One can tell if a good team is poised for greatness by how they run their business in their first game against an inferior opponent.

Teams that are seriously competing for championships often start their journey with a loss. Judging by Thursday night, UCLA looks like one of those teams, just look at the performance of those three senior spark plugs.

Jáquez was the brilliant leader with 17 points. Campbell was on his best play with 10 assists. And David Singleton, after going scoreless in the Pac-12 tournament championship game against Arizona, hit the game’s first basket and hit three 3-pointers.

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

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

Do you want surreal? What if the popular Russell Stong played in the last two minutes of an NCAA tournament game and, even here, the crowd roared?

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

Remember, for the school that has won an NCAA record 11 national titles, the Bruins still have a sordid 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 losses were blamed on Jim Harrick’s teams, but Harrick wasn’t the only coach to get stung.

There was Detroit Mercy defeating Steve Lavin’s Bruins in 1999. Then, in perhaps the ugliest early outing, Steve Alford’s Bruins lost to St. Bonaventure on a snowy night in Dayton, Ohio, in the play-in game of 2018.

Cronin has flirted with first-round losses in each of his two tournaments since he became the Bruins’ coach, his team escaping Michigan State in overtime in 2021 and then winning by four against Akron last season.

This is not one of those seasons. This is not one of those teams. And on Thursday night, the world of college basketball witnessed it.

“I’m not surprised…these guys are trained,” Cronin said. “We played to win at UCLA.”

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 concerned about the others.”

In fact, everyone else may have to worry about them.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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