Defense and rebounding will be UCLA's focus in NCAA second-round game against Texas A&M

Nicole Kornet knocked down a three-pointer to open a 20-point UCLA lead before Boise State missed a couple of shots and called a timeout.

It was late in the third quarter of an NCAA tournament opener Saturday and the Bruins were in a comfortable spot. Their coach, however, wasn’t comfortable at all.

During the timeout, Cori Close met Monique Billings near mid-court and delivered an earful. Close caught Billings jogging, not sprinting, on transition defense.

A day after the fourth-seeded Bruins (24-8) routed 13th-seeded Boise State, 83-56, to advance to the second round of the 64-team tournament, Close was adamant that she would hold her team accountable every play regardless of the circumstance.

“If you love your players, then you’re willing to hold them to a standard they can rise to,” Close said. “We didn’t even get burned… but it’s about right then you were choosing the easy way.

“Monique Billings can affect every play on offense and defense whether she touches the ball or not.”

Billings, a junior forward, has averaged 16.8 points and 10.6 rebounds this season. Against the Broncos (25-8) she scored a game-high 19 and grabbed seven rebounds, but understood Close’s tough-love approach.

“She’s focused on not just this game but she wants to have us go far in the NCAA tournament,” Billings said. “I appreciate it because it’s needed just to push the team to where we want to go and push me personally to do what I want to do.”

The Bruins advanced to the third round last season for the first time since 1999 and will make a repeat appearance if they defeat fifth-seeded Texas A&M (22-11) on Monday evening at Pauley Pavilion. The winner will play in a Bridgeport, Conn., regional semifinal, likely against top-overall seed Connecticut, as long as the Huskies (33-0) defeat eighth-seeded Syracuse (22-10) in a second-round matchup.

UCLA watched from the stands Saturday as Texas A&M mounted the largest come-from-behind victory in NCAA tournament history — a 25-1 run late in the fourth quarter — to defeat 12th-seeded Pennsylvania, 63-61.

“First thought is that they are tough,” guard Jordin Canada said. “We need to know that they’re not going to give up, we have to keep punching and fighting for 40 minutes.”

Center Khaalia Hillsman scored 27 points, 15 in the fourth quarter, for the Aggies. Guard Anriel Howard grabbed 16 rebounds.

“They showed incredible perseverance, they showed incredible toughness, really mentally more than anything else,” Close said. “We have got to control the possession game.”

The Bruins started fast against Boise State, making five consecutive shots and jumping to a 15-0 lead. They shot 58.2% from the field and an improbable 58.8% from behind the three-point line.

Another fast start would be nice, Close said, but defense and rebounding — an area where the Bruins struggled against the Broncos — will be key.

“We made shots early, that’s a bonus,” Close said. “We’ve got to get stops — that’s what I was most pleased about in our start.”

Said Billings: “They’re a great rebounding team, offensive rebounding team, so that will be an emphasis, just to box them out and keep them off the boards.”

lindsey.thiry@latimes.com

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