Kiki Rice and Lauren Betts rally UCLA past Creighton and back into the Sweet 16

Kiki Rice held the ball in the final moments before joining her teammates in a joyous mob just inside the three-point line, everyone hopping in celebration.

Cori Close walked around the Pauley Pavilion court and pointed toward the crowd with both fingers, repeatedly saying, “Thank you!”

For UCLA, this was especially sweet.

Once down by 10 points in the third quarter and seemingly out of answers, the second-seeded Bruins stormed back for a breathless 67-63 victory over seventh-seeded Creighton in the second round of the NCAA women’s basketball tournament Monday evening.

UCLA (27-6) will face third-seeded Louisiana State, the defending national champion, in a regional semifinal Saturday at MVP Arena in Albany, N.Y.

It’s the second consecutive trip to the Sweet 16 for the Bruins after they reached that round a year ago before losing to South Carolina.

The Bruins found a heroine every time they needed one after facing that double-digit deficit.

With UCLA needing a basket after what had been a seven-point lead fell to two, Charisma Osborne drove into the lane for a floater that put the Bruins ahead 67-63 with 1:27 left. The teams then traded empty possessions before UCLA’s Angela Dugalic blocked a layup and the Bruins forced a jump ball with 3.6 seconds left that gave them possession.

Rice scored 17 of her 24 points in the second half and Lauren Betts had 20 points and 10 rebounds in her return from a one-game absence because of an unspecified injury, thrilling a crowd that included Bruins legends Ann Meyers and Denise Curry.

UCLA’s defensive intensity rose to the moment in holding Creighton (26-6) without a point for more than four minutes to start the fourth quarter as the Bruins rolled off a 7-0 run to surge into a 63-56 advantage on Rice’s reverse layup.

The third quarter had Rice’s fingerprints all over it as she carried her team back from a 10-point deficit. Her repeated drives to the basket led to free throws and her step-back three-pointer resulted in an emphatic arm swing in celebration.

Rice followed a coast-to-coast layup with a tough turnaround jumper to give the Bruins a three-point lead that Creighton wiped out with Lauren Jensen’s three-pointer to send the teams into the fourth quarter deadlocked at 56-56.

The Bruins were in significant trouble facing a 42-34 halftime deficit that came courtesy of the Bluejays’ high-level shotmaking. Thanks largely to its motion offense that repeatedly caught defenders out of position and Jensen’s 17 points on seven-for-12 shooting, Creighton shot 58.6% from the field and made five of nine three-pointers.

UCLA squeezed 14 first-half points out of Betts, but not enough possessions ran through the 6-foot-7 sophomore center as the Bruins chucked up several questionable three-pointers.

Most of Betts’ points followed a similar pattern: She raised one of her long arms calling for the ball and a teammate would oblige with an entry pass over the top of the defense. Despite Creighton’s attempts to front her defensively or send double teams, once Betts held the ball near the basket there was almost nothing the Bluejays could do to stop her.

One Creighton double team on one edge of the low post led to Betts finding Camryn Brown cutting toward the other for a layup.

After so much went wrong, things would eventually tilt heavily in the Bruins’ direction.

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