UCLA hopes imposing Lauren Betts returns for battle with Creighton for Sweet 16 bid

The wait could be over.

If Lauren Betts is able to return from the unspecified injury that sidelined her for UCLA’s opening-round victory in the NCAA women’s basketball tournament, it would make a formidable team more powerful, a juggernaut possibly unstoppable.

The wait could drag on.

If Betts is sidelined for a second consecutive game after a team spokesman said she tweaked something in practice last week, it would deprive the Bruins of their leading scorer and rebounder at a time when the challenges heighten exponentially with each round.

The wait could make or break a season.

Six inches taller than anyone on Creighton’s roster, the 6-foot-7 Betts would give the second-seeded Bruins (26-6) a practically insurmountable advantage against the seventh-seeded Bluejays (26-5) in the second round of the Albany 2 Region on Monday evening at Pauley Pavilion (5:30 p.m., ESPN).

Just listen to the Bluejays concede how they would be essentially helpless against a player averaging 14.7 points and 9.0 rebounds while making 65.4% of her shots.

Said Creighton guard Morgan Maly: “There’s not a ton you can do once she does get the ball.”

Said Creighton coach Jim Flanery: “If she catches it too deep, we don’t have a chance.”

So is the wait about to end? UCLA coach Cori Close said Betts would be involved in practice Sunday with the hope she could return after a one-game absence.

“I still think it will be really day to day,” Close said, “and how she responds” to practice.

Betts’ presence could be especially valuable as a rim protector who would allow her teammates to roam more freely around the perimeter on defense against an opponent that makes 35.6% of its three-pointers, ranking No. 30 in the country.

“Having Lauren, just her presence in the paint, maybe it will disturb a little bit of that,” UCLA forward Angela Dugalic said. “I don’t know her status either, but if she can’t [play], I think we’re completely fine without her and even better with her.”

The Bruins showed they could bully a smaller team with Betts watching in street clothes during an 84-55 victory over Cal Baptist in the first round. With Gabriela Jaquez taking over at power forward alongside Dugalic in the post, UCLA overwhelmed the Lancers with its inside-out approach.

Jaquez displayed a larger dose of her usual toughness on the way to 19 points and seven rebounds in 32 minutes. She had prepared for the start by texting Close the night before the game and asking for the plays that she would need to run the most. When Close checked in with Jaquez on Saturday morning, Jaquez told her she was ready.

Boy, was she ever.

“It’s always more important to Gabs to win than to do anything that she’s comfortable with,” Close said. “She showed a little bit of everything tonight, right? She showed herself on the rebound, in the post, hitting couple threes, off the bounce. So I just think it’s really about her attitude.”

Close said the matchups were favorable for the 6-foot Jaquez because Cal Baptist used a small, guard-heavy lineup.

“I knew we had a size advantage,” Jaquez said, “so I knew me in the post would be a good thing.”

Jaquez unveiled some moves she had learned going up against older brother Jaime, the former UCLA star who is now a rookie with the NBA’s Miami Heat.

“I definitely learned a lot from my brother and his pump-fakes and his pivots,” Gabriela said. “We both enjoy posting up.”

UCLA point guard Kiki Rice added 20 points and seven rebounds and Charisma Osborne finished one assist short of a triple-double with 15 points, 15 rebounds, nine assists and three steals.

With a chance to get that final assist, Osborne found Rice for a three-pointer on the wing in the final minute but the shot went off the side of the rim.

Said Rice softly into a microphone: “Sorry.”

Said Osborne: “It’s OK. She’ll make the next one.”

Cal Baptist (28-4) had no counters, especially from long range. Close had repeatedly reminded her players in practice this week about the Lancers taking 32 three-pointers a game and what successfully defending that would entail.

Message received. Cal Baptist made only four of 21 three-pointers (19%) in falling behind by as many as 22 points. The Lancers’ biggest highlight belonged to guard Nae Nae Calhoun, who unleashed a wicked crossover move for a layup that left Rice sprawled on the court late in the third quarter.

Unfortunately for Cal Baptist and its large throng of fans who had made the drive from Riverside, the Lancers were still down by 20.

There was little restlessness among a crowd of 8,841 that included former Bruins Russell Westbrook and his wife, Nina, who tugged at the sides of her UCLA sweatshirt to better display the four letters when shown on the video board.

The drama could heighten Monday. The wait for the Bruins’ best player could tell the story.

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