SPOKANE, Wash. (AP)—It’s a simple rule Nikki Caldwell’s players at UCLA came up with on their own: Make two consecutive mistakes on the defensive end and prepare to be subbed out.
With Courtney Vandersloot running the show and the breakneck pace Gonzaga thrives on, Monday night could turn into conveyor belt of substitutes if the Bruins aren’t careful.
“Hopefully we’re able to limit their touches and scoring opportunities with our suffocating defense,” UCLA’s Jasmine Dixon said.
In an intriguing matchup, the third-seeded Bruins face No. 11 seed Gonzaga in the second-round of the NCAA tournament Monday.
It’s speed and scoring versus deliberate and defense.
Then there’s the added factor of the game being played on Gonzaga’s home floor with 6,000 rowdy fans waiting to see if the Bulldogs can advance to the round of 16 for a second consecutive year. The winner will get either Xavier or Louisville in the regional semifinals next Saturday night across town at the Spokane Arena.
“It’s not the fans that are playing. … We’re not going to let them distract us,” Dixon said.
Perhaps more than any other game this season for both teams, pace will determine much of what happens.
Gonzaga (29-4) is the top scoring offense in the country, averaging more than 86 points per game and topping 90 or more 16 times, including the Bulldogs’ electric 92-86 first-round victory over sixth-seeded Iowa.
Vandersloot was the engine yet again for the Bulldogs, scoring a career-high 34 points, grabbing seven rebounds and dishing out seven assists, moving her within 10 points of becoming the first player—men’s or women’s—in Division I history to score 2,000 points and have 1,000 assists in a career.
And while Gonzaga was lighting up the scoreboard, UCLA (28-4) could not have looked more different in its sloppy 55-47 win over No. 14 seed Montana. But the Bruins like ugly, as evidenced by having one of the top scoring defenses in the country. Only twice this season have the Bruins allowed 70 or more points, one of them a double-overtime victory over Notre Dame.
“They are tremendous,” Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves said. “They have the kind of athletes and with certain skill sets that are a little bit more prone toward great defense, physical play.”
For UCLA, a win would be a benchmark moment for a program that hasn’t reached the round of 16 since 1999 and lost in the second round in each of the last two tournament trips.
Now in her third season as UCLA’s coach, Caldwell has become more hands off with her team, as evidenced by the player-driven rule on defensive mistakes. But defense remains the driving force behind UCLA’s success.
And it’s a unique trapping defense the Bruins use and extend about 75 feet. Sometimes it’s designed to cause turnovers and complete chaos. Other times, the Bruins are simply trying to slow the opponent just enough so there is limited time on the shot clock.
Caldwell reads the tenor of her team before deciding how the Bruins will press. If she sees a scrappy bunch wanting to be aggressive, then UCLA will be more in the mood of forcing turnovers. If she senses her team being more passive, then the Bruins go into slowdown mode.
“I just kind of go with them. When they’re in the mood to trap they’re good and there are times when they’re not in the mood and we just go to our delay defense,” Caldwell said. “I give them the freedom to play either one because both have been successful for us.”