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UCLA dispatches Montana, faces GU on Monday

Defense kept the University of Montana women’s basketball team in the game, and defense won it for the UCLA Bruins.

In a game that was hideous to watch at times from an offensive perspective, the third-seeded Bruins found just enough offense the final 3 minutes to hold off the 14th-seeded Grizzlies 55-47 in an NCAA tournament opener before a crowd that started at 5,632 at the McCarthey Athletic Center but dwindled to less than 500 by game’s end.

UCLA (28-4) meets Gonzaga (29-4) on Monday at 6:30, with the winner advancing to the West Regional at the Arena.

“They can make you look bad at times,” said Montana coach Robin Selvig, whose team finished with 25 turnovers. “That’s how they won, with their defense. They just really do a good job of pressuring and they recover so quickly. They’re just a great defensive team.”

Still, the Grizzlies (18-15) were very much in the game until the end. And when Alyssa Smith buried a 3-pointer with 3:35 to go, Montana pulled within 47-42.

The Grizzlies got closer when Stephanie Stender made two free throws, cutting the Bruins’ lead to 51-47 with 1:16 remaining.

But three more turnovers in a span of 14 seconds locked it up for UCLA.

“We had a chance,” Selvig said. “Hats off to UCLA. I thought we weathered the frustration of the turnovers (15) in the first half. Actually we got enough shots.”

But not enough quality shots. Too many times Montana had to go deep into the shot clock, and several times the Grizzlies had to launch ill-advised shots to avoid a shot-clock violation.

“They’re just pretty much more athletic than a lot of the schools we played this year,” Montana sophomore Kenzie De Boer said. “They’re tall, they’re long, they’re quick. They’re pretty much everywhere on the court. We just had a hard time passing it around.”

To look at the faces of the Bruins as they left the court, one would have thought they had lost. Perhaps, more than anything, it was relief.

“We just played well enough to win,” UCLA guard Doreena Campbell said. “We didn’t have as much heart as we could have put into it. We were lacking in a lot of spots. We’ll need to change quick going into Gonzaga.”

UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell praised Montana and said she learned a few things from the Grizzlies.

“Montana did an exceptional job of executing their game plan,” Caldwell said. “They did a great job of exploiting us when we broke down and making key shots. Their will and their resilience, spirit … that’s something that I will obviously take from them. I think you can always learn from your opponents and we definitely will learn from this game today.”

Alyssa Smith led Montana with 14 points, making 4 of 6 3-pointers.

“It was tough,” Smith said. “It just seemed like we couldn’t get a lead. We worked our asses off on defense and tried and tried and tried and kept battling. It was hard for us to get the ball inside. They were guarding us on the perimeter and they’re big and they’re long. It wasn’t easy to get a shot off.”

Jasmine Dixon led UCLA with 15 points, nine rebounds and five steals.

“We guarded the heck out of them,” Selvig said. “It’s not like (they) were getting stuff easy either.”

A couple of times UCLA appeared on the brink to blow open the game, but the Grizzlies would have nothing of it. Montana’s young team will return five sophomores and five freshmen.

“We got into the NCAA tournament a different way than we ever had,” Selvig said. “These ladies made a believer out of me and I thought we had a chance today. For 40 minutes of every game this year they played like crazy.”