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Plaschke: UCLA looks all business in NCAA tournament opener en route to UNC Asheville

UCLA’s Amari Bailey, left, and Tiger Campbell celebrate on the bench against UNC Asheville in the second half of the first round of the NCAA tournament in Sacramento on Thursday. UCLA won 86–53. (Wally Scalise / Los Angeles Times)

There is no order here. There is no Princeton here. There’s no late craziness or startling weirdness or glaring transience here.

No Cinderella, only Smashing Pumpkins.

UCLA wasn’t gonna lose it NCAA First Round Tournament Game for the 18-point underdog North Carolina Asheville Thursday night at the Golden 1 Center.

No way. how no. Not for all the craziness in the world. This was evident in the first three minutes, which roughly went as follows:

UCLA Layout. Asheville Brick. UCLA makes two free throws. Asheville Brick. UCLA Trey. Asheville Brick. UCLA Dunk. Asheville Brick. UCLA Dunk. Asheville turnover. UCLA Trey.

time up!

By the time the badly matched Bulldogs could hold their breath, UCLA raced to a 14–0 lead and it was over. A few hours later the final score was 86-53, and the final message was one that must have resonated through this fraught landscape of the march.

UCLA is not messing around.

UCLA is not going to be Arizona or Virginia, two respected teams that fell in big upsets the day before. UCLA is not taking their No. 2 seed lightly. UCLA is starting its march to the Final Four in the sprints. Their next stop on this treacherous journey is Saturday in the second round against resurgent Northwestern, a team that also took their first round lead seriously with a strong win over Boise State.

Seeing the intensity and focus on Thursday night, keep betting on the Bruins.

Ever since UCLA lost to Arizona last weekend in the Pac-12 tournament championship game, UCLA coach Mick Cronin knew this was going on.

Cronin said, “They ran into the buzz we saw tonight.” “We don’t take losing well at UCLA … We make fun wins and we lost our last game and these guys took it personally and you saw how we came out.”

Asheville looked to be a good team. They had won 18 of their last 19 games, they were the Big South champions, they had some key players…

And UCLA baffled them like a high school squad hanging out in the wrong gym.

“I was very nervous at the beginning of the game,” admitted Asheville star Drew Pember. “I didn’t know how it was going to turn out.”

It was like, relentless. It was awesome. It was like, UCLA wearing its Cronin best. Cronin said, “Our defensive intensity and our deflections early in the game, I think, really bothered them.” “They can never really be comfortable.”

UCLA's Amari Bailey and Jaime Jacquez Jr. fight for rebounds with UNC Asheville's Fletcher Abbey.

UCLA’s Amari Bailey, left, and Jamie Jacquez Jr. battle for rebounds with UNC Asheville’s Fletcher Abbey, left, in the first half of the first round of the NCAA tournament in Sacramento on Thursday. (Wally Scalise / Los Angeles Times)

The Bruins defense forced the Bulldogs into numerous jarring shots, wild airballs, wayward passes, and rampant confusion. And the Bruins did so without their giant stopper Adem Bona, who had been cleared to play but was placed on the bench while he recovered 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 injury.

They’ll definitely remember Clarke afterwards. Bona will eventually have to play if they want to advance. But for now, the Bruins’ veteran savvy and carefree mentality seem more powerful than any one player.

“We try to get the young guys … to understand that this is the only tournament and we don’t want to finish it,” said Jaime Jacquez Jr., one of the Bruins’ three veteran leaders.

The NCAA Tournament is famous for its first-round upsets, but more telling are its first-round upsets. One can tell whether a good team is poised for greatness by how it handles its business in its opening game against a weak opponent.

Teams that seriously compete for the championship often begin their journey with a loss. Since Thursday night, UCLA has looked like one of those teams, just check out the performances of those three senior spark plugs.

Jaquez was the quiet leader with 17 points. Campbell was at his best playmaking with 10 assists. and David Singleton, after going scoreless in the Pac-12 Tournament championship game against Arizona, scored his first basket of the game and connected on three trespasses.

Add to all this, freshman Amari Bailey’s seemingly insane debut with 17 points and four-for-four nights from backup center Kenneth Nuba, and the Bulldogs never had a chance.

“It was just an unreal feeling,” Bailey said of the key to the team’s continued good fortune. “I mean, I had chills all over my body.”

you want real How popular walk-on Russell Stong actually played the last two minutes of an NCAA tournament game and even the crowd roared.

A few weeks from now, this game will probably be remembered as irrelevant. But it’s a big deal considering UCLA’s history.

Remember, for a school that has won an NCAA-record 11 national titles, the Bruins still have an abysmal history of losing these first-round games.

In 1995, the season before winning the national title, they lost in the first round to Tulsa. The season after winning the title, they lost in the first round to Princeton.

Both of those losses were pinned on Jim Harrick’s teams, but Harrick was not the only coach to be stung.

In 1999, Detroit Mercy defeated Steve Lavin’s Bruins. Then, in perhaps the worst early exit, Steve Alford’s Bruins lost to St. Bonaventure in a 2018 play-in game on a snowy night in Dayton, Ohio.

Cronin has suffered first-round losses in each of his two tournaments since becoming Bruins coach, with his team surviving Michigan State in overtime in 2021 and then winning four against Akron last season.

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

“It doesn’t surprise me … these guys are trained,” Cronin said. “We play to win at UCLA.”

Earlier in the week, Campbell echoed that sentiment. “We come here to win matches, that’s all we’re trying to do,” Campbell said. We’re not really worried about everyone.

Actually, everyone else may need to be worried about them.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times,



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