The only moments of nervousness came several hours before the start of the game.
A series of massive upsets put UCLA on high alert against another Cinderella looking for a little March magic.
Neither would be found after an early basket barrage by the Bruins allayed any lingering fears. UCLA would not go the way of Arizona or Virginia and would be eliminated on the opening day of the NCAA tournament.
The big question facing the second-seeded Bruins during an 86-53 over 15 victory in the first round.he-Seeded North Carolina Asheville on Thursday at the Golden 1 Center was how much the starters would rest.
Everyone except David Singleton was given the last 5 minutes and 46 seconds of discount.
The win was so comfortable that the Bruins didn’t need to use rookie 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 is likely to play Saturday when UCLA (30-5) takes on the seventh-seeded team. Northwest in the second round in a high-stakes preview of future Big Ten rivals.
There was no need for Bona on Thursday given his team’s dominance in all facets as they built a 21-point halftime lead that stretched to 33 points in the second half.
“It doesn’t surprise me because we lost our last game and we don’t take loss lightly,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said, adding that senior forward Jaime Jaquez Jr. was more upset than ever after the team’s setback. against Arizona in the Pac-12 championship. “We played to win at UCLA. It’s not okay to lose. When we lost Saturday, I wasn’t happy, but I knew he was going to help us.”
Another big assist came from big man Kenneth Nwuba. With two dunks and a layup, the fifth-year senior posted his career-high for points in just 41/2 minutes. He was so effective that his teammates kept passing him en route to 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting to go with four rebounds and two blocks.
“How does that feel? Amazing,” Nwuba said of the great contribution from him along with fellow reserve Mac Etienne, who scored 10 points on 5-of-5 shooting.
The outmatched Bulldogs couldn’t stop Jaquez either. The Pac-12 player of the year made one crafty move after another, finishing with 17 points and eight rebounds as he had his career-high five steals in the first half.
“I think we’re playing a lot for Jaylen this tournament,” Jaquez 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 get steals, trying to be active with my hands, trying to do it for him.”
The Bruins also got a boost from rookie guard Amari Bailey (17 points, six assists), senior guard Tyger Campbell (seven points, 10 assists) and Singleton, who had 11 points less than a week after going scoreless against Arizona.
The moment seemed awfully big for Asheville (27-8) in the opening minutes. UCLA ran their offense like it was five against zero, while the Bulldogs looked completely bewildered on both ends of the floor. The Bruins scored the first 14 points of the game, Singleton capping the run with a 3-pointer and a raised fist as Asheville called timeout.
Things didn’t get better for the Bulldogs, who quickly fell behind by 23 points. Their best players, Drew Pember and Tajion Jones, both hit 3-pointers into the air and Pember (13 points) didn’t score for more than 10 minutes.
UCLA dominated in every category, forcing 16 turnovers while committing just eight, outscoring the Bulldogs by 15 and outshooting them, 54% to 37.3%. The Bruins also pulverized Asheville, 56-24, on points in the paint.
“That’s what you have to do in games like that,” Cronin said. “If he doesn’t, his size and athleticism aren’t a factor, then it doesn’t matter if he’s a high major or a mid major. You have to give them great importance, and we did that tonight physically.”
Perhaps none of that should have come as a surprise given that the Bruins showed up here loose and ready to dominate the moment.
Jaquez walked into the UCLA press briefing Wednesday wearing a blue and gold beanie and holding her phone to record the scene. He answered a question in Spanish — “rusty” was the Spanish-speaking reporter’s assessment he indulged in — and explained his thinking behind the various hairstyles he’s sported during his four years at school.
“I try to go through my hair, I treat it like the phoenix,” she said. “I let it grow, I cut it all off just to be born again.”
What about those annoyances earlier in the day? Cronin said they had nothing to do with his team.
“We don’t believe in false motivation,” Cronin said, “so we don’t believe you need your home crowd to win. We don’t think it takes two starters to win. We think you need toughness and togetherness, playing hard and smart. There is always a way to win.”
Sometimes, like Thursday, it’s easier than expected.