MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Nebraska's first trip to the final 16 was met with more relief than excitement. The Cornhuskers have never been part of the national elite before, but they're acting and reacting as if they belong.
Dominique Kelley scored a career-high 22 points, Kelsey Griffin added 18 points and 14 rebounds and top-seeded Nebraska took apart UCLA 83-70 in the second round of the NCAA women's tournament on Tuesday night.
The Cornhuskers (32-1) advanced to the regional semifinals for the first time in program history to play No. 4 seed Kentucky in Kansas City, Mo., on Sunday.
"I just kept telling the girls that I'm not ready to stop playing with them," Kelley said.
Darxia Morris and Doreena Campbell each scored 15 points and star Jasmine Dixon managed 13 points for the No. 8 seed Bruins (25-9) following early foul trouble, but the momentum and chaos created by their defensive pressure didn't last past the first 10 minutes. UCLA lost for the first time in 19 games this season when scoring 64 points or more.
"We're kind of used to it," Griffin said. "We've been playing with a pretty big target on our back all year, even though we try to ignore it. Teams come out fired up to plays us, and we're used to them making big runs."
Griffin, who recorded her 2,000th career point in the first round, got past 1,000 career rebounds to become only the second Nebraska women's player to reach both of those marks.
A few thousand Huskers fans chanted "Go Big Red!" and cheered their team on a 16-0 run early in the second half that broke the game open, fueled by a pair of 3-pointers from Cory Montgomery. She had her own cheering section from hometown Cannon Falls, a 45-minute drive south from the University of Minnesota campus.
"Nebraska fans are awesome. They're so loud," Griffin said. "I'm hoping a lot of 'em come out to Kansas City ... even though we're basketball, not football."
The Cornhuskers expressed concern about handling UCLA's defensive pressure, and that wasn't just coach speak.
The Bruins swarmed Griffin with their aggressive matchup zone nearly every time she caught the ball on the block, and often she simply had to throw the ball at the backboard and hope for a foul call.
Nebraska started playing some hard-nosed defense after a slow start, though, and the Bruins showed they were just as vulnerable to the pressure. Dixon's second foul sent her to the bench for the balance of the half with 10:23 left, and the Bruins wilted.
They even picking up a technical foul for having six players on the court after a substitution miscommunication midway through the first half while they clinged to a two-point lead.
"We want our defense to look like we have six players on the floor, but we don't want it to be where we get a technical," coach Nikki Caldwell said, managing a smile.
Nebraska has insisted all along the seed number doesn't matter, that winning is the goal rather than proof it belongs with the game's elite. Though the Bruins were a formidable second-round opponent, all the other No. 1 seeds breezed into the round of 16 without even a first-half speed bump: Connecticut won by 54, Stanford by 29 and Tennessee by 28.
UCLA is on the rise, too, trying to escape Stanford's long shadow with young, snazzy-dressed Caldwell injecting an energy and confidence into the program since arriving last season. Dixon, a sophomore who transferred from Rutgers, will return to lead a team that now truly knows what March is like.
"I'm so proud and happy that I got to be part of coach Nikki's program," senior starter Erica Tukiainen.