Reporting from Minneapolis
The progress shown by the UCLA women's basketball team is measurable. The Bruins' 25 victories are their most since 1999 and the fourth-most in school history. Their 15-3 record during the Pacific 10 Conference season equaled UCLA's best conference mark.
Yet something is missing from UCLA's dossier — a victory over an elite team. There was a double-digit loss at Tennessee. There were three losses to Stanford, two by more than 20 points. And the Bruins finished the regular season 1-5 against ranked opponents.
On Tuesday night, eighth-seeded UCLA gets another opportunity when it faces top-seeded Nebraska in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The question is whether the Bruins have learned enough in those games to make the next step in their development, upset the 31-1 Cornhuskers and advance to the regional semifinals for the first time since 1999.
"A win in this game would definitely put us on the map," UCLA's Jasmine Dixon said. "We have been the underdog, and we continue to be the underdog because we haven't beaten the high-ranked opponent."
For that to happen, UCLA has to get off to a better start. In the each of the two lopsided losses to the Cardinal, the Bruins dug double-digit holes in the first half and weren't able to recover.
Even in Sunday's first-round victory over ninth-seeded North Carolina State, UCLA found itself down nine points with less than four minutes to play before halftime. The Bruins were able to use their trapping defense to get back in the lead and surge ahead, but that isn't as easy against good teams.
"The main lesson that I hope they have learned is that you have to bring it for 40 minutes against quality teams who know how to score the basketball and disrupt you defensively," UCLA Coach Nikki Caldwell said.
While Nebraska is ranked fourth nationally, the Huskers don't have the history and pedigree of the other top seeded teams in this tournament and have never won a second-round game. This Nebraska team is also somewhat vulnerable to pressure, something that concerns Huskers Coach Connie Yori.
"We have identified 13 or 14 defenses that they play, so it will be a challenge, no question, to prepare in such a short period of time," Yori said.
There is little question that UCLA is going to bring pressure and do everything it can to make the Huskers and star forward Kelsey Griffin uncomfortable.
"We are not satisfied at this point," Bruins guard Erica Tukiainen said. "We are getting better. [Tuesday] would mean a lot for us. We're going to try and come out and play hard and have fun."
And take another step forward in the process.