SPOKANE - Despite a withering UCLA press and a seemingly game-long 8 to 10 point deficit, the Montana Lady Griz were within four points of stunning the Bruins late in their NCAA tournament first-round matchup.
Turnovers No. 24 and 25 sidetracked that comeback, and UCLA held on for a 55-47 victory Saturday at Gonzaga University's McCarthey Center.
The Bruins (28-4) advance to a daunting second-round matchup Monday against the host Bulldogs, while the Lady Griz (18-15) - including former Lake City High standout Katie Baker - were left wishing for a little more time and a couple more plays.
"We had our chances," said Baker, who had six points, two rebounds, a steal and an assist off the Montana bench. "Their press is tough, but it's not unbeatable. We had some bad turnovers down the stretch."
"It was a hard-fought battle," Griz coach Robin Selvig added. "I told the ladies we had a chance. Hats off to UCLA. They can make you look bad at times ... They just really do a good job of pressuring and then they recover so quick, they're just a great defensive team."
The Bruins defense forces opponents into an average of 22 turnovers a game, and Montana piled up 15 of them in a first half where the Griz labored to score 17 points.
A basket by Jasmine Dixon put UCLA ahead 32-21 early in the second half, and it looked like the Pac-10 team would roll to victory.
Instead, some outside shooting by Alyssa Smith and some gritty inside play by Baker and her teammates kept the game competitive.
Baker took a charge in the lane to draw a UCLA offensive foul, and shortly thereafter hit a pull-up jumper to cut the Bruin lead to 34-26.
Smith's fourth 3-pointer of the game trimmed the margin to 36-30, and the Griz made two straight defensive stops.
But an array of half-court traps and defensive pressure on the Montana guards prevented the Lady Griz from running their offense, as two wild 3-point shots barely beat the shot-clock buzzer. UCLA went on a 6-0 run to reassert control.
The Griz had one more rally in them, with a Sarah Ena 3-pointer and Stephanie Stender's steal and two free throws pulling Montana within 51-47 with 1:16 remaining.
A smooth post move by Dixon and two final Griz turnovers sealed the win.
"They're a lot more athletic than a lot of the schools we played this year," UM point guard Kenzie DeBoer said. "They're tall, long, quick and they pretty much were everywhere on the court tonight. We had a hard time passing because they were always there."
Dixon led the Bruins offense with 15 points and added nine rebounds, while Doreena Campbell and Rebekah Gardner added 11 points each.
"(Montana's) will and resilient spirit is something I'll take from them," UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell said. "I think you can always learn from your opponents and we definitely will learn from this game today. But our team hung tough."
Smith had 14 points to lead Montana, which overcame a 3-8 season-opening slide to win the Big Sky postseason tournament and qualify for the NCAAs for the third time in the past four seasons.
"As a whole, our team has grown so much," DeBoer said. "I think if we would have played UCLA at the beginning of the season, we would have gotten smashed. For us to stick with a team that's (seeded) third, that's awesome. I think we represented the Big Sky well."
Smith 5-8 0-0 14, Ena 4-9 0-0 9, Linford 2-7 0-0 4, DeBoer 1-4 2-2 5, Stender 1-10 3-4 6, Nelson 0-2 0-0 2, Baker 2-6 2-4 6, Hurley 0-0 1-2 1, Sullivan 1-3 0-0 4. Totals 16-49 8-12 47
Nyingifa 1-4 2-2 4, Dixon 4-9 7-12 15, Morris 2-7 0-1 4, Campbell 5-10 1-2 11, Walker 2-2 5-8 9, Earl 0-0 0-0 0, Nzekwe 0-1 0-0 0, Williams 0-1 1-4 1, Gardner 3-6 4-4 11. Totals 17-40 20-33 55.
Halftime - UCLA 26-17. 3-pointers - Montana 7-20 (Smith 4-6, Ena 1-1, DeBoer 1-3, Stender 1-6, Baker 0-1, Linford 0-1, Nelson 0-2). UCLA 1-7 (Gardner 1-3, Morris 0-2, Campbell 0-2). Rebounds - Montana 34 (Stender 6). UCLA 32 (Nyingifa 11). Assists - Montana 9 (DeBoer 4). UCLA 6 (Walker 3). Steals - Montana 8 (Ena 3), UCLA 19 (Dixon 5). Team fouls - Montana 20, UCLA 14. Fouled out: none. Attendance: n/a.