Two steps down, one to go.

When the UCLA women’s basketball team walked onto the court at the Galen Center for its semifinal matchup with USC on Saturday night, the members knew they were in for a tough game.

The rubber match of three games between the fiercest of rivals did not disappoint, but it was the folks in blue and gold that were cheering the loudest at the final buzzer. UCLA defeated USC 59-53 in a taut, physical semifinal affair. With the win, the Bruins advance to Sunday afternoon’s championship game against top seed and No. 2 Stanford.

“Obviously this was a great game. It was a hard-fought game on both parts,” coach Nikki Caldwell said. “This team is resilient. That led to them being able to persevere today.”

The Bruin game plan was clear from the outset. With the Trojans looking to lock down the UCLA guards, Caldwell urged her team to put the ball into the paint. UCLA’s productive duo of freshman forward Markel Walker and sophomore forward Jasmine Dixon responded with a pair of outstanding performances. Dixon’s double-double helped pace the Bruins offensively, scoring 10 points while pulling down 12 rebounds. Walker pitched in 15 points of her own, including a crucial bucket on a nifty drive to the hoop with 1:40 to go. The basket reclaimed a 55-53 lead for the Bruins, who would seal the game with free throws.

“She played bigger than just a rookie,” Caldwell said of Walker. “It’s a chess match, and we had a mismatch. She plays multiple positions for this team. She can create for herself and others. We had the right people in the right spot, but it was by design.”

Walker wasn’t the only one to contribute big plays at the right time in a game that turned into a back-and-forth affair for much of the second half. Junior guard Darxia Morris contributed several key jumpers in the final 20 minutes. But with less than three minutes to go, Morris also endured a span of four consecutive missed free throws with UCLA down one before finally making one to tie the game at 53. Fortunately for the Bruins, the sequence wouldn’t be a costly one.

“I know next time, in crucial times, I need to put those in,” Morris said.

Despite her struggles at the charity stripe, Caldwell voiced confidence in her guard’s ability to come through in the clutch. Her unique coaching method helped contribute to Morris’ tying shot.

“I knew Morris was pressing, so I asked her who her favorite singer was,” Caldwell said. “She said Beyonce, so I told her to say her name at the free throw line.”

It worked.

UCLA secured the victory despite a physical, sometimes sloppy second half that saw a plethora of missed layups, defensive assignments and close outs. It was USC sophomore guard Ashley Corral who did much of the damage, nailing three 3-pointers in the second half to help pull the Trojans back in front.

“Ashley doesn’t need a lot of space,” Caldwell said. “We lost her in certain coverage. We have to be better at stopping a player like that. We broke down on our inability to close out.”

Despite falling behind with 5:51 remaining, UCLA stuck with its game plan, turning to Walker to put the Bruins over the top. The team responded to the energy of a boisterous crowd, which included a large group of rowdy blue-clad supporters and football coach Rick Neuheisel.

“The atmosphere didn’t really bother us,” Walker said. “We controlled ourselves. Coach prepared us for playing in atmospheres like that.”

As the intensity of the rivalry elevated with every passing minute, the crowd began to rise to its feet. For Dixon and her teammates, the spectators made the atmosphere all the more special.

“Seeing how large the crowd was was great,” Dixon said. “It was very important that the football coach did come. It was amazing. They were there for us the whole way.”

The Bruins advance to play Stanford in the conference championship game Sunday at 3 p.m. UCLA lost both its meetings with the Cardinal this season and last beat them in 2007. Caldwell knows that her squad is in for a tough test but believes that they can pull off a surprise.

“We’ve got to be a team that plays loose. I don’t want them to feel any of the pressures of going up against Stanford,” Caldwell said. “Just go play this game that you love. They’re capable of great things tomorrow night.”