With hard work in practice they've evolved from shaky to solid in handling full-court defense.
But that doesn't make Saturday any less scary for the Montana women's basketball team.
The Lady Griz are bracing for an eighth-ranked UCLA team that will dog them from one end of the floor to the other in their NCAA tournament opener at 4:40 p.m. (MDT) in Spokane. So good is the Bruins' press they forced 17 turnovers by second-ranked Stanford in Saturday's Pac-10 championship.
"I think the No. 1 key is to break their press, probably the best backcourt press in the nation from what we've seen," said Montana State coach Tricia Binford, whose team dropped a 54-44 decision at UCLA on Dec. 5. "Then if they do, obviously they've got to find ways to score. We struggled in the halfcourt against their 2-3 zone with man-to-man principles.
"Defensively I think the Lady Griz zone will be effective as long as they can rebound out of it."
UCLA (27-4) lost the Pac-10 final after building a 30-21 halftime lead. But it sent a message it's a bona fide threat to reach the Final Four.
"Right now we're playing inspired basketball," Bruins third-year coach Nikki Caldwell told the Missoulian.
"I like the fact we're a defensive-minded team that gets on the boards. We like to turn people over. Our transition game has been key for us. Then I like where our backcourt is with Doreena Campbell and Darxia Morris being seniors."
Montana relies on sophomore Kenzie De Boer and freshman Lexie Nelson to run the show at point guard. They've steadily improved against the pressure of Big Sky Conference teams, but the Bruins present a different challenge with their quickness and size.
Caldwell downplays the potential mismatch.
"There's a lot of players that will, I'm sure, be ready to help against the press for them," said the coach, whose team allows an average of 54.5 points per game. "I don't think it's going to be a one-woman show trying to break our pressure. They'll have their press offense in place."
Caldwell has some concerns of her own devising a plan for Montana's versatile offense. The Lady Griz have shown that even when it takes them a while working the ball to midcourt against a press, they're adept at getting off a good shot.
"We've got to be aware of their ability to shoot the 3-ball," she said. "They've got a lot of different people who can put the ball up. Obviously (post Katie) Baker is leading the attack.
"We want to make sure we don't allow them to get into a good rhythm. They're also a team that can get to the free-throw line, so you know they're dribble-driving. We're going to have to focus in on what we do best."
The chances of third-seeded UCLA looking past 14th-seeded Montana (18-14) appear remote judging by what Caldwell and her players are saying. Just two seasons ago the Bruins were left out of the Big Dance, and last March they were bounced in the second round.
"I think we're extremely focused, because we haven't played any of these teams and we don't know what to expect," Bruins forward Jasmine Dixon said. "Every team made it to the tournament for a reason, so we have to prepare as if they're the No. 1 team in the bracket.
"We feel like we have a target on our backs instead of vice-versa last season when we were a No. 8 seed."
Caldwell was less than thrilled with UCLA's seeding. She believed the Bruins were deserving of a No. 2 seed. On top of that, UCLA is forced to hit the road and could play two teams in their backyard (Montana and Gonzaga).
"It is what it is," she said. "You still have six games you have to go through to cut down nets and we're prepping now for Montana.
"They've been able to put teams out of the (Big Sky) tournament that were higher seeds and that's what March Madness is all about. It's about getting opportunities to showcase your abilities. Two years ago our name wasn't even called, so we're putting all of this in perspective, trust me."
NOTES: Montana allows an average of 60.1 points per game ... Backcourters Campbell, Morris and Markel Walker accounted for 40 of UCLA's points in its 64-55 loss to Stanford Saturday ... Caldwell played against UM while at Tennessee. The teams met in Knoxville in November of 1993. She has a communications degree and spent several years working in TV before getting into coaching ... Bruins assistant Tony Perotti was at Northern Arizona from 2004-08. In those years the Jacks beat the Lady Griz four times, including in the Big Sky semifinals in '06 and '07.
Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.