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UCLA hopes for big things against Creighton in second round of NCAA tournament

After taking all it could handle from American on Saturday in the first round of the NCAA tournament, the UCLA women’s basketball team hopes to play better Monday in its final game this season at Pauley Pavilion.

The third-seeded Bruins host No. 11 Creighton in the second round and the Bluejays are full of confidence after their 76-70 upset of No. 6 Iowa on Saturday. The teams met Nov. 25 at the South Point Thanksgiving Classic in Las Vegas and UCLA won 72-63, but that was then and this is now.

“Creighton is a really good basketball team,” UCLA coach Cori Close said Sunday. “We played them earlier this year and we have total respect for their program. They have a similar style to what we faced in American. They’re a very well-coached team. They shoot the three extremely well; they shot it well last night. They made nine threes, and that’s a pretty normal night for them. I fully expect Creighton to have a great game plan, but I think our team has matured in that. We’ll get their best shot and that’s good because it’s going to help us to rise up.”

UCLA (25-7) has plenty of motivation, seeking to advance to the Sweet 16 for the third year in a row and earn its 15th victory in 18 games. The best the Bruins have done in 15 NCAA tournament trips is the Elite Eight in 1999.

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After practice Sunday, senior guard Jordin Canada talked about her last home game and her favorite memories. She recorded her 115th double-figure scoring game and 21st double-double this season in the Bruins’ 71-60 victory against American.

“I don’t have a favorite memory, it’s too hard to recall,” she said. “I just think the past four years here have been amazing. The fans and all the supporters we’ve had being there through our journey. It’s just been a great experience for me and obviously for Monique [Billings] and Kelli [Hayes] as well.”

Billings, a senior forward, had her team-leading 17th double-double this season and 46th of her career with 20 points and 10 rebounds against American, as UCLA won for the 39th consecutive time at home against an unranked team. The Bruins improved to 18-1 when scoring at least 70 points.

“I don’t have a favorite memory, but from our freshman year with the record that we had and then developing into our sophomore, junior, and senior years, how we only lost three home games within those three years combined, so we would want to replicate that tomorrow night,” Billings said. “That’s just something really cool, to have that under our belt like, ‘Wow, we only lost three games at home.’ It’s really cool to say that we were a part of that and how our team has grown. I think that’s a memory I’ll always cherish.”

Close and the Bruins are embracing the “favorite” role and all of the pressure and expectations that go with it.

“When you’re a top-10 program for most of the season in terms of rankings you do have a target on your back when you’re picked to win things,” said Close, in her seventh season at UCLA. “That’s the reality. There has to be a maturity about you that knows that’s coming and you have to match and exceed their aggression. There’s nothing to lose for a team that can play really free and we just have to maintain who we are. Whatever that other team throws at you, you find the way to play towards that. I think that’s just part of growing and that’s an area we’ve had to grow in as well.”

Hayes, a senior guard, reflected on how the team’s postseason expectations have changed — or have they?

“The expectations have always been high for our teams,” Hayes said. “I know the word talent can be an eschewed word, but the talent we have is very special. It’s something that can conquer hard things and us surpassing where we’ve gone in previous years is something we’re working for with every weapon that we have. We’re still trying to strive towards greatness in a sense, but it’s already within us and something we can do.”

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Creighton (19-12), which finished fourth in the Big East Conference regular-season standings and lost to top-seeded Marquette in the semifinals of the conference tournament, is led by junior forward Audrey Faber, who averages 20 points per game, and sophomore forward Jaylyn Agnew, who had 24 points and five assists against Iowa.

“Obviously, we have a big challenge tomorrow night,” coach Jim Flanery said. “The good news is we have some familiarity with UCLA because we played them and our players were able to watch them a little bit yesterday, which can possibly be helpful. We’ll have to do a lot of things well but I really feel like we can build off of yesterday and even our conference tournament performance. We’ll be ready, I know they will be.”

The Bruins’ ability to press and score in spurts, as they did in a 22-3 run at the end of the first quarter Saturday, presents a major challenge for the Bluejays.

“They’re hard enough to guard in the half court,” Flanery said. “If we turn the ball over and give them easy baskets, it’s going to be really difficult for us to overcome that.”

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