UCLA forward Jasmine Dixon looks for room to shoot against Montana forward… (James Snook / US Presswire )
Reporting from Spokane, Wash.
Montana's coach and players couldn't say enough about UCLA's quickness.
They raved about the Bruins' full-court pressure and trapping defense.
So why were UCLA players shaking their heads Saturday after defeating Montana, 55-47, in the first round of the NCAA women's basketball tournament?
"We played well enough to win," senior guard Doreena Campbell said somberly.
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Junior forward Jasmine Dixon was blunter in her assessment.
"That was one of the worst games we've played," she said.
The good news for the Bruins is that they improved to 28-4 and advanced. On Monday, they'll face Gonzaga, a 92-86 first-round winner over Iowa.
The bad news: Gonzaga will be playing on its home court in front of its delirious fans at the sold-out McCarthey Athletic Center.
Another flat performance like Saturday's could send the Bruins home with a second-round tournament loss for the second year in a row.
"We're definitely going to have to play with a lot more heart and intensity," junior guard Rebekah Gardner said.
Coach Nikki Caldwell said last week that the goal was simply to win six games. Four wins in the Spokane Regional, which also includes top-seeded Stanford, would put UCLA in the Final Four for the first time.
So why stress over style points?
Third-seeded UCLA did force 25 turnovers, converting them into 22 points.
"They pretty much were everywhere on the court," Montana guard Kenzie DeBoer said.
Caldwell, though, has hammered the point that in tournament play a team's "go-to" players must step up.
For UCLA, that means Dixon and senior guard Darxia Morris.
They struggled early against a 14th-seeded Montana team that was largely mediocre for most of the season before getting hot and winning the Big Sky Conference tournament.
"You've got to have your Batman and Robin in synch," Caldwell said. "When they're not … you're going to struggle."
Dixon scored 12 of her game-high 15 points in the second half and finished with nine rebounds. Morris, however, made only two of seven shots and finished with four points.
Campbell and Gardner each had 11 points to help ward off Montana, which stayed within striking distance with help from the Bruins, who made only 20 of 33 free throws.
UCLA led by nine points at halftime and increased the margin to 12 before Montana pulled to within 51-47 with 1 minute 16 seconds remaining.
Dixon answered with a basket after making a strong inside move. She then stole a pass, was fouled and made a free throw.
UCLA wasn't threatened again.
"We know we could have lost and gone home," Dixon said.
UCLA will practice Sunday in preparation for a Gonzaga team featuring point guard Courtney Vandersloot and forward Kayla Standish, who combined for 64 points against Iowa.
"This team understands … they cannot come out and play flat," Caldwell said. "We have to not only be hungry, but starving to advance."