UCLA women’s water polo had to overcome something on Saturday it hasn’t faced in two months – a deficit heading into the fourth quarter.
With a little over five minutes left in the game and after losing a three-goal lead it had built up earlier in the game, freshman attacker Maddie Musselman netted her thid goal of the day to tie the game at eight.
Two and a half minutes later, UCLA forced a turnover, and freshman utility Bronte Halligan scored what would be the game-winning goal, as the No. 1-seeded Bruins (21-1, 6-0 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) held on to beat No. 5-seeded California (15-8, 2-4) 9-8 in the second MPSF semifinal.
“As much as we want the game to be smooth and to win every game by three, four or five goals and not be under pressure, I thought this was excellent for us,” said coach Brandon Brooks. “We haven’t been down in a game in I think two months, and for us to fight back and pull ahead after a defensive stop and a five-on-six stop was an important experience for us.”
The Bruins got their momentum going early, jumping out to a 2-0 lead after their first two possessions of the game.
The Bears, however, responded with two goals of their own over the next three minutes, one off a penalty shot and another with an exclusion advantage.
This sequence happened again in the second quarter, as senior utility Mackenzie Barr was able to find the net and redshirt senior attacker Rachel Fattal put up two goals for a 6-3 lead.
But with Cal’s defender Rachel Lewin and driver Anna Illes scoring one apiece before the half ended, Cal cut the deficit to one goal.
Then, the Bears took the lead in a momentum-swinging third quarter.
A goal from Cal driver Stephanie Mutafyan tied the game at six halfway through the frame, and driver Carla Carrega put the Bears on top a minute later. Musselman was able to tie the game with her second goal of the day, but 30 seconds later, Cal driver Emma Wright gave it the lead again at 8-7.
That would be the end of the Bears’ offense – UCLA’s defense held them to zero goals in the final quarter. What’s more, the two goals from Musselmann and Halligan both came from forced turnovers.
“Like we always say, we just have to be nails on defense,” Halligan said. “We had to get those stops on defense before we could’ve scored those goals. Every time it’s about communication, getting those stops and making sure we finish out the defense on the other team’s possession.”
Next up for UCLA is the championship game Sunday against the No. 2-seeded Stanford Cardinal (20-2, 5-1).
In their only matchup against the Cardinal this season, the Bruins were able to get the win in Palo Alto in a No. 3 vs. No. 1 upset. Halligan, Barr and the rest of the team said that Stanford will have momentum after beating No. 3-seeded USC (27-3, 4-2) 6-5 Saturday, and will be seeking redemption after losing at home, according to Brooks.
But to Barr, nothing matters from the regular season at this point.
“Everybody has a clean slate,” Barr said. “It’s going to be really important that we come out and improve from today.”