March 31, 2023
UCLA looks all business in NCAA tournament opening loss to UNC Asheville

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

UCLA’s Amari Bailey, left, and Tyger 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 Skalij/Los Angeles Times)

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

No 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 isn’t about to take its foot off the gas.

Their next stop on this treacherous Final Four 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.

“We understand that every team in this tournament is a winning team,” Tyger Campbell said before Thursday’s game. “They are not afraid. They are here for a reason…we respect them as opponents. We’re just going to try to win and do what we have to do, run our scouting report against them because we know they’re a good team.”

Asheville seemed like a good team. They didn’t seem scared. 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.

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 remained on the bench 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.

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

UCLA's Amari Bailey and Jaime Jaquez Jr. battle for a rebound with UNC Asheville's Fletcher Abee.

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)

Jamie Jaquez Jr. was the great 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 first basket of the game and hit three 3-pointers.

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

It was so lopsided that 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 a school that has won an NCAA record 11 national titles, it still has a sordid record of losing these first-round games.

The season before the Bruins 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.

Mick 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.

This should have been obvious earlier this week, when they entered the tournament relaxed and comfortable as a core group playing together in their third gear.

“Just enjoy it, it goes by fast, so enjoy every moment, play your heart out,” said Jaquez Jr., who used his smartphone to film the opening press conference.

Even the tough Cronin was cold. “Look, they have to have fun,” he said of his team. “This is the time of his life. They understand.”

The players were so relaxed that they talked about her hair. Campbell is famous for his dreadlocks, while Jaquez Jr. is known for the dark, shaggy locks that spill over his white headband.

“I try to go through my hair, I treat it like the phoenix,” said Jaquez Jr. “I let it grow, I cut it all off just to be born again. I go through a process.”

As for Campbell’s incomparable style…

“I think our hair shows a bit of our personality,” she said, later adding. “We’re just trying to have fun. We are here to win games. We’re not really concerned about the others.”

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

This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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