This post was updated March 16 at 10:22 p.m.
SACRAMENTO — In a day full of bracket-busting upsets, the Bruins left no chance of falling victim to the same fate.
After starting the contest with 14 unanswered points on perfect shooting, No. 2 seed UCLA men’s basketball (30-5, 18-2 Pac-12) never looked back en route to a 86-53 wire-to-wire victory over No. 15 seed UNC Asheville (27-8, 16-2 Big South) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.
Coach Mick Cronin said his team’s Pac-12 championship game loss to Arizona – which was upset by No. 15 seed Princeton earlier in the day – added extra fuel to the fire regardless of what team stood in UCLA’s way.
“We don’t take losing well at UCLA. We spell fun, ‘W-I-N,’” Cronin said. “We lost our last game. These guys took it personal. … It’s not about our opponent, it’s about us.”
Starting in place of freshman forward Adem Bona – who missed the game with a left shoulder injury – redshirt senior forward/center Kenneth Nwuba contributed three baskets during the Bruins’ perfect start, including two open dunks inside. With a layup just less than five minutes in, Nwuba had already surpassed his previous career high in scoring with six points.
Nwuba finished the game with 10 points, four rebounds and two blocks while making all four of his shot attempts.
“My message every year: When your name is called, be ready to play,” Nwuba said. “It takes all guys to win, not just one man.”
Fifth-year guard David Singleton and redshirt senior guard Tyger Campbell also each sank their first 3-point attempts, and the Bruins did not stop piling on points while holding the Bulldogs without a field goal through four minutes of play. Four different players recorded eight or more points for the blue and gold in the first half, led by 14 from senior guard/forward Jaime Jaquez Jr.
Jaquez also recorded five of his team’s nine steals in the opening period as part of 12 turnovers committed by Asheville, which were converted into 22 points as the Bruins took a 46-25 lead into the halftime break.
Jaquez said his team is focusing on maintaining its defensive intensity despite the loss of junior guard Jaylen Clark, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year who is out with an Achilles injury.
“We’re playing a lot for Jaylen this tournament,” Jaquez said. “I took a page out of J-Rock’s book – try to get steals, try to be active with my hands and try to do it for him.”
Forward Drew Pember – the Big South Player of the Year – was held scoreless through the first 10 minutes and recorded five of his six turnovers in the first half alone.
“My entire thought process going into the game was doing whatever I could to stop him (Pember) from getting going,” Jaquez said.
Asheville’s turnover woes carried into the second half as UCLA converted two bad passes from guard Caleb Burgess into four points in the first three minutes. The Bulldogs managed to find the bottom of the basket at a more respectable rate with 11 points in 4 1/2 minutes but couldn’t slow down the Bruins’ offense.
UCLA’s lead hovered around 20 points as the Bruins quieted any hint of momentum from their opponents. A putback layup from Jaquez with just more than 10 minutes remaining kicked off another 14-0 run capped off by a jumper from freshman guard Amari Bailey to extend his team’s advantage to 74-41.
Bailey finished his first NCAA Tournament game with 17 points, tied with Jaquez for the team lead, while also dishing out six assists – the second-highest mark of his career. Five Bruins finished in double figures in the scoring column as the team made 54% of its field goal attempts with 24 assists on the night.
Cronin said Bailey is finding his niche at just the right moment, adding that he is not afraid to lean on his freshman to provide what the team needs.
“It’s been a process … of trying to get him to his comfort zone,” Cronin said. “That’s what you’re seeing here lately.”
With the win, UCLA will face No. 7 seed Northwestern on Saturday in the Round of 32.