PALO ALTO – The cheers of “undefeated” and the drenched clothes of coach Adam Krikorian were telltale signs that the UCLA women’s water polo team had done it again. For the fourth year in a row, the Bruins were taking home the NCAA national championship.
On Sunday the stands at Stanford’s Avery Aquatics Center were dominated by shades of blue and red as two very familiar groups of fans traded cheers. The final game of the tournament pitted No. 1 UCLA (33-0) against crosstown rival No. 3 USC (21-8) in a rematch of the 2005 NCAA final. Just as in that game, the Bruins prevailed, defeating the Trojans 6-3.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” Krikorian said. “These girls played with so much heart today. To go undefeated is incredibly difficult. These girls handled it really well and stayed focused on the task.”
It was clear from the first minutes of the game that this was not the same UCLA team that struggled early on in an 11-4 semifinal win over No. 5 UC Davis on Saturday afternoon. Three goals from junior Tanya Gandy and seniors Courtney Mathewson and Gabrielle Domanic in the first three and a half minutes of the first quarter gave the Bruins a lead they would not relinquish.
They built on that momentum in the second quarter and by halftime had a 5-1 lead over the Trojans.
“I think a big key today was getting off to a good start,” Krikorian said. “It settled us down and gave us some confidence.”
The second half saw the Trojans with a new wind. USC won the opening sprint and worked the ball to UCLA’s cage but still struggled to get shots past junior goalkeeper Brittany Fullen. It wasn’t until a 6-on-5 opportunity with 1:03 left in the quarter that the Trojans got another goal, bringing the score to 5-2.
“They had a really strong start, and we were really nervous,” USC senior Veronika Bartunkova said. “When we started playing, it was too late.”
The Bruin offense didn’t have much success in the second half. USC’s defense was able to pick up a few steals, and UCLA had six missed shots in the third quarter alone.
Ultimately though, UCLA scored more than enough in the first half, and after the two teams traded goals in the fourth quarter and the final buzzer sounded, the Bruins had proven once again that they were the best team in the nation.
After winning UCLA’s 100th national title overall last year, these Bruins will now bring No. 101 back to Westwood. UCLA’s five seniors also became the only women to win national titles in all four of their years at UCLA and only the second Bruin team overall to do so.
This also marks the first time since 2005 that the Bruins have finished a season undefeated. But Mathewson, a freshman on that 2005 team, said that wasn’t ever a focus for this year’s team.
“When you’re going through the process, you’re not thinking, “˜I want to be undefeated at the end of the season,’” she said. “It’s not a goal you have. The goal at the beginning of the year is to make it to the championship game and to win it.”
The Trojans struggled throughout the game, especially when it came to executing on their 6-on-5 opportunities, where they scored just one goal out of 12 opportunities. By comparison, the Bruins scored two goals on only three 6-on-5 opportunities.
“Our youth showed tonight, and we were a little bit nervous,” USC coach Jovan Vavik said. “We missed many opportunities, and we couldn’t get back into it.”
The Bruins relied on their physical defense and frustrated the Trojans’ offense with steals, field blocks and by forcing bad shots.
“Defensively, that was as good of a performance as I’ve ever seen,” Krikorian said. “To hold USC 1-of-12 on their power plays means everyone did an excellent job defensively.”
After watching his team fall to the Bruins 11-4 on Saturday, UC Davis coach Jamey Wright knew only too well how well UCLA could play defense. After Sunday’s outcome, his Saturday comments sounded almost prophetic.
“(The Bruins) always get my vote for No. 1,” Wright said. “There is no reason for that to change anytime soon.”