May 28, 2024

Spotting Adem Bona trying to pick him up just inside halfcourt, 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.

Bona gave his poor victim a quick staredown 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.

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.

Looking more dominant the longer he played, Bona scored 22 of his career-high 28 points in the second half and added nine rebounds, four blocks and two assists. He made 10 of 16 shots and eight of 11 free throws to help his team shake off some early sloppiness to win comfortably.

Transfer forward Lazar Stefanovic scored 11 points and center Kenneth Nwuba added 10 points on four-for-four shooting, becoming the only other Bruins to reach double figures in scoring.

UCLA guard Dylan Andrews shoots in front of St. Francis forward Aidan Harris during the first half Monday.

UCLA guard Dylan Andrews shoots in front of St. Francis forward Aidan Harris during the first half Monday.

(Ryan Sun / Associated Press)

As promised, UCLA coach Mick 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.

Bona followed two of his three first-half blocks by lingering on the baseline for menacing staredowns.

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.

There were some expected struggles from the Bruins’ big cast of freshmen.

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.

The Bruins played without freshman forward Berke Buyuktuncel, who is still awaiting clearance from the NCAA after arriving on campus in September.

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