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March Madness: Kiki Rice leads UCLA past Creighton and into Sweet 16

Kiki Rice held the ball in the final moments before joining her teammates in a joyous mob just inside the three-point line, everyone hopping in celebration.

Cori Close walked around the Pauley Pavilion court and pointed toward the crowd with both fingers, repeatedly saying, “Thank you!”

For UCLA, this was especially sweet.

Once trailing Creighton by 10 points in the third quarter and seemingly out of answers Monday evening, the second-seeded Bruins teetered on the edge of an uncomfortably early exit from the NCAA women’s basketball tournament.

Having more talent, a height advantage and playing on its home court didn’t mean anything against a team that got the shots it wanted and made a healthy percentage in building that big lead.

Rice, a sophomore point guard who writes in her notebook before practices that UCLA will play in the Final Four, needed to rewrite her team’s narrative midgame.

“I just felt like this is obviously, at this point of the season,” Rice said, “it’s one game, and you’re out.”

The Bruins are still in after Rice scored a flurry of points and contributed to a defensive resurgence that sparked her team’s 67-63 victory over the seventh-seeded Bluejays in a second-round slugfest.

UCLA (27-6) will face third-seeded Louisiana State, the defending national champion, in a regional semifinal Saturday at 10 a.m. PDT (ABC) at MVP Arena in Albany, N.Y. It’s the second consecutive trip to the Sweet 16 for the Bruins after they reached that round a year ago before losing to South Carolina.

After scoring 13 of her 24 points in the third quarter to help wipe out that double-digit deficit, Rice got some late help. On a night she struggled with her shooting, senior guard Charisma Osborne drove into the lane for a floater that put the Bruins ahead 67-63 with 1:27 left.

UCLA guard Charisma Osborne drives past Creighton forward Mallory Brake during the first half Monday.

UCLA guard Charisma Osborne drives past Creighton forward Mallory Brake during the first half Monday.

(Harry How / Getty Images)

The teams traded empty possessions before UCLA’s Angela Dugalic blocked a layup and the Bruins forced a jump ball with 3.6 seconds left that gave them possession. That sealed a comeback centered on defense and attacking open lanes to the basket after the Bluejays swarmed UCLA center Lauren Betts with double and triple teams.

“At some point they are not going to let me play one-on-one,” Betts said after scoring 14 of her 20 points in the first half during her return from a one-game injury absence. “We saw how that was going.”

UCLA’s defensive intensity rose to the moment in holding Creighton (26-6) to 21 points in the second half. The Bluejays went scoreless for more than four minutes to start the fourth quarter, delighting a roaring crowd of 7,839 that included Bruins basketball legends Ann Meyers and Denise Curry.

Betts said it was so loud that at one point she couldn’t hear what Rice was saying.

“I was trying to guess the play we were running,” Betts said.

Whatever the Bruins ran worked as they rolled off seven straight points to take a 63-56 lead on Rice’s reverse layup. Creighton eventually trimmed its deficit to 65-63 on Molly Morgensen’s step-back three-pointer before Osborne’s jumper gave the Bruins some breathing room.

March Madness: Kiki Rice leads UCLA past Creighton and into Sweet 16

The third quarter had Rice’s fingerprints all over it. Her repeated drives to the basket led to free throws, and her step-back three-pointer resulted in an emphatic arm swing in celebration. She later followed a coast-to-coast layup with a tough turnaround jumper to give the Bruins a three-point lead.

A bigger story might have been the Bruins defense, which finally shut down Creighton’s Lauren Jensen. After Jensen had scored 17 points on seven-for-12 shooting to lead the Bluejays to a 42-34 halftime cushion, Close went on a locker-room tirade, asking her players how badly they wanted this victory.

“We don’t give up that many points in a half to anybody,” Close said. “So we needed to just get back to doing things with our defense.”

Like making things difficult. With defenders shadowing her, Jensen made only one of 10 shots in the second half while adding three points on the way to finishing with a team-high 20.

March Madness: Kiki Rice leads UCLA past Creighton and into Sweet 16

It wasn’t enough against the Bruins’ ensemble cast of heroines. Gabriela Jaquez nearly added a double-double off the bench with 11 rebounds and eight points, and Dugalic came up with the late stop.

“We have a phrase,” Close said. “Sometimes me, sometimes you, always us. This was an ‘us’ kind of win, and I’m so proud of the selflessness of this team.”

The Bruins displayed that collective spirit once more on their way off the court, a bubbly bouncing bunch headed deeper into March.

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