The remaining Gonzaga fans that chose to stay for a preview of their second round opponent began trickling out of McCarthey Athletic Center with just under five minutes left in the first half of game two of the first round in Spokane between the third-seeded UCLA Bruins and 14th-seeded Montana Lady Grizzlies.
"They might not score 20 points in this whole game," remarked one mocking Gonzaga fan about Montana, who had ony 10 points with three minutes left in the first half.
Put simply, the early going of Montana's 55-47 loss in the first round of the 2011 NCAA Tournament wasn't particularly pretty.
UCLA forced them into a season-high tying 25 turnovers, led by junior Jasmine Dixon jumping passing lanes to get a game-high five steals to complement her game-high 15 points while sophomore Markel Walker had four steals to with nine points. UCLA's defensive pressure caused Montana's Alyssa Smith to commit five turnovers to go with her team-high 14 points while Bellingham, WA native Kenzie De Boer committed 10 turnovers.
"They are a lot more athletic than a lot of the schools that we played this year," said De Boer, who also finished with four of the team's nine assists. "They're tall, long, quick and they pretty much were everywhere on the court tonight and we had a hard time passing the ball because they were just there."
Yet UCLA's pressure seeming ever-present, it wasn't even necessarily the miscues that showed up in the boxscore that best represent what Nikki Caldwell's Bruins' defensive schemes have done to opponents all season.
After hitting double digits, the Grizzlies had five consecutive possessions that included two airballs, a block, a turnover, and a standard missed contested shot. They'd throw a different look at Montana on every possession, ranging from zone defenses, man-to-man, and three quarters court presses. UCLA's goal is simply to throw their opponents into a state of confusion and they accomplished that against Montana.
"They can make you look bad sometimes and that's how they've won: with their defense," said Montana coach Robin Selvig. "They just really do a good job of pressuring and then they recover so quick - they're just a great defensive team. I thought we weathered the frustration of the turnovers in the first half and battled."
But when Montana stopped turning the ball over so often, UCLA's athleticism took over. Perhaps a precursor to UCLA's athleticism taking over the game was near the end of the first half when sophomore Markel Walker slowed down on a fast break to wait for a defender to catch up to her before leaning into her before going up for a layup and drawing a foul. And in the second half it was that difference in athleticism that hurt Montana most - UCLA got to the free throw line 20 times in the second half which only added to the difficulty of playing a team that was already exhausting them with their defensive pressure. Yet among the many things they had to be displeased with, they certainly were not happy with their 60.3 percent free throw percentage.
"That's not going to get it and our players know that," said UCLA assistant Tasha Butts, whose team also shot 1-for-7 from 3-point range. "Every single practice we shoot free throws and we focus on shooting our free throws because when you get to this stage in NCAA you have to make free throws and layups. We definitely have to do a better job with that."
Yet despite a merely satisfactory win according to Bruins coaches and players, they dominated most of the game with their combination of chaotic defensive schemes and athleticism. Nevertheless, playing a team like UCLA as closely and with as much heart as they did was a sign of progress for Montana, if not the cliched moral victory.
"As a whole, our team has grown so much," said Kenzie De Boer, who arrived in the media room with her eyes red from tears. "It's crazy to see where we started. We struggled a lot at the beginning of the year and throughout conference, we grew as a team, we grew together, and we've gotten so much better. I think if we played UCLA at the beginning of the season, we would have gotten smashed.
"For us to stick with a team that's ranked third, that's awesome. I think we represented the Big Sky well. I think we've just grown a lot as a team overall."