Adem Bona lives up to his billing as UCLA's best player in season-opening win (2024)

Spotting Adem Bona trying to pick him up just inside half court, the guard five inches shorter made his move.

Dribbling past the UCLA big man into the paint, Saint Francis’ Cam Gregory appeared to have Bona beat by half a step on his way to the basket.

Nope.

Sprinting from behind, the headband-wearing Bona closed with superhero speed. He leaped to contest the shot, his right arm swatting the ball off the backboard as Gregory went flying onto the court behind the baseline.

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Bona gave his poor victim a quick stare-down before running back under the basket and snagging an offensive rebound. On the other end of the court, Bona was equally unstoppable. He caught lobs for dunks, made hook shots and powered his way toward the basket for layups.

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In his first game back from the shoulder injury that sidelined him late last season, Bona lived up to his coach’s prediction that he would be the Bruins’ best player.

Turning UCLA’s season opener into his own series of highlights, Bona led the Bruins to a 75-44 victory Monday night at Pauley Pavilion.

“Just an amazing feeling,” Bona said after scoring 22 of his career-high 28 points in the second half while adding nine rebounds, four blocks and two assists.

Adem Bona lives up to his billing as UCLA's best player in season-opening win (2)

UCLA Bruins forwards Adem Bona (3) and Kenneth Nwuba (14) celebrate after teaming up for a score against the St. Francis University Red Flash at Pauley Pavilion.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

The sophom*ore center made 10 of 16 shots and eight of 11 free throws to help his team shake off some early sloppiness to win comfortably.

“I still think he can get better,” UCLA coach Mick Cronin said, alluding to Bona’s not having played on the team’s Spanish tour or in its exhibition game while completing his recovery.

Transfer forward Lazar Stefanovic scored 11 points and center Kenneth Nwuba added 10 on four-for-four shooting, becoming the only other Bruins to reach double figures in scoring. Showing all the ways he can affect a game, Stefanovic added eight rebounds, four assists and three steals while spending only 3½ minutes on the bench.

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“That’s 3½ minutes too much,” Cronin said. “Right now, with all these freshmen, he needs to get in better shape, play 40.”

As promised, Cronin went with two big men in his starting lineup, pairing Bona with Nwuba. They were joined by point guard Dylan Andrews, shooting guard Sebastian Mack and Stefanovic.

The supersized lineup produced some early highlights. Bona and Nwuba formed an unlikely two-man game, each feeding the other for a dunk as the Bruins scored their first eight points off dunks.

“Big-to-big connection,” Nwuba deadpanned.

Adem Bona lives up to his billing as UCLA's best player in season-opening win (3)

St. Francis Red Flash guard Wisler Sanon II (with ball) goes to the floor after a loose ball as UCLA Bruins guard Dylan Andrews, right, looks on at Pauley Pavilion.

(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA parlayed its size advantage into stifling defense that held the Red Flash to 33.3% shooting and took a 32-30 advantage in rebounding. The Bruins were also surprisingly collected in their first game since the departures of Tyger Campbell and Jaime Jaquez Jr., committing only seven turnovers. But Cronin said that was a function of what he called “hunting points.”

“Hard to turn it over when you got guys playing selfish, taking bad shots,” Cronin said. “We’re gonna get right to the point early with this team. I’m not sugarcoating it, I ain’t messing around. If you’ve got 12 guys, once Berke [Buyuktuncel] is cleared hopefully — and I ain’t gotta play all 12. So it’s gonna be real simple, OK? Around here, don’t come here and don’t send your player here if you don’t want to play team basketball. OK? Be smart enough to know.”

Adem Bona lives up to his billing as UCLA's best player in season-opening win (4)

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There were some expected struggles from the Bruins’ big cast of freshmen. Cronin said guard Ilane Fibleuil, who played only 19 seconds, was still recovering from a fall off a scooter that injured his wrist. Guard Jan Vide missed all three shots he took in three minutes and Buyuktuncel didn’t play while awaiting clearance from the NCAA.

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Before making his college debut, Aday Mara spoke with Bruin legend Bill Walton — well, listened is probably a more accurate way to put his exchange with the chatty broadcaster. Mara’s first basket came after he collected an inbounds pass from Andrews and rose for a dunk.

But Mara also was on the receiving end of two quick hooks from Cronin — the first after he was part of a lineup that gave up back-to-back offensive rebounds and the second after committing an offensive foul.

It was more of the same in the second half, Mara committing a foul while allowing a basket over his massive wingspan. Out of the game he went once more.

“We’re gonna play guys that do what I ask ‘em to do,” Cronin said. “You know, the problem with our team right now is you got guys that I have to play that haven’t earned it yet. So we gotta figure it out on the fly.”

Adem Bona lives up to his billing as UCLA's best player in season-opening win (5)

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Adem Bona lives up to his billing as UCLA's best player in season-opening win (2024)
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