Gonzaga doesn't seem like underdog vs. UCLA
The second round of the NCAA women's basketball tournament is when things get interesting, right?
No more first-round blowouts -- the mismatches, for the most part, are gone.
No game should be more interesting than Monday night's matchup between No. 3 seed UCLA and No. 11 Gonzaga on the Bulldogs' home floor in Spokane, Wash.
Ask Iowa how that went on Saturday. A very capable Gonzaga team took advantage of the home-court advantage, came back from a seven-point halftime deficit and knocked the sixth-seeded Hawkeyes out, 92-86 on Saturday night.
Are the Bulldogs also capable of knocking off UCLA?
History suggests a resounding yes. It was just a year ago that Gonzaga beat No. 2 seed Texas A&M in the second round to reach the program's first Sweet 16.
Gonzaga isn't merely a team with a great home record, although a 31-1 record in the last 32 home games is an attention-getter.
The Bulldogs are the nation's top scoring team, averaging more than 86 points a game. They have one of the best backcourt players in the country in point guard Courtney Vandersloot and a load of offensive talent and experience with Katelan Redmon and Kayla Standish.
Gonzaga is a team that challenged itself with its nonconference schedule, which included games against Stanford, USC, Mississippi and Notre Dame. And then didn't buckle in a largely dominant run through the West Coast Conference.
A No. 11 seed for a team with 28 wins and a No. 19 national ranking? Never seemed quite right.
And just to add another element, Gonzaga knows that should it pull off the upset, the Bulldogs would have only to drive down the road to the Sweet 16 at Spokane Arena for a little more home cooking.
"It's just another home game for us," said Vandersloot, who had a career-high 34 points against Iowa. "We're excited to be here. Our crowd obviously gives us energy, but when it comes down to it, it's the NCAA tournament and it's just another game."
For a UCLA team that finished a strong second to Stanford in the Pac-10, matched the school record for regular-season wins and earned the program's highest seed ever in the tournament, it is a game fraught with peril.
That is even more true after the Bruins allowed 14th-seeded Montana to stay too close for comfort in their first-round game on Saturday night, winning 55-47.
But UCLA coach Nikki Caldwell isn't going to let her team dwell on geography. She'd rather the Bruins focus on what they do well, bring aggressive defensive pressure, rebound and score in transition.
"We understand the crowd is in their favor, but I told this team that is what March Madness is about," Caldwell said Sunday. "We have come into environments where they have more fans, but I told the team fans don't sweat, don't rebound the basketball nor do the fans make plays.
"It's going to come down to who is going to execute their game plan to the best of their ability. If we commit to that and you're in that competitive zone, you don't hear fans out there on the floor."