The Bruins are locking down on defense.
The last time No. 2 UCLA men’s water polo (10-1) faced No. 5 UC Santa Barbara (15-3), it ended the Gauchos’ 15-game undefeated start to the season. UCLA allowed only eight goals to UCSB in the semifinals of the SoCal Invitational – tied with UCSB’s win over California as its lowest scoring output of the season.
Since that loss, Santa Barbara lost two more games to then-No. 4 Pacific and then-No. 5 USC by one goal in each outing. UCLA lost to Stanford in its first game after its win over then-No. 1 UCSB, but bounced back with an 11-7 win over No. 7 Long Beach State.
The Bruins have allowed no more than nine goals to three of their last four top-10 opponents. Coach Adam Wright said redshirt senior goalkeeper Alex Wolf and freshman goalkeeper Bernardo Maurizi have been very reliable in the cage, and the defense has raised its level at times to give other teams very difficult opportunities.
“There’s moments both ways. Obviously, our goalkeeper play has kept us in a position to win too,“ Wright said. “But there has been some nice moments defensively where we’ve taken our blocks, or even the energy on the defensive side in certain moments has put us in a position to force other teams into more difficult shots.”
The last time UCLA faced UCSB, Wolf turned in a 13-save performance. On the opposite side of the pool, Gaucho transfer goalie Danny Roland held his former team to only nine goals on 23 shots.
Freshman defender/utility Cameron Reagan said the play between the pipes will be strong on both sides, but the extent to which team can put their goalkeepers in positions to make saves is key.
“It could come down to what defense helps out their goalies the most,” Reagan said. “Both teams in our last game played zone a lot, so whichever team takes their blocks better and covers their angles to help out their goalie could come out with the win.”
The Bruin defense will have to deal with the third-best goal-scorer in the Golden Coast Conference – Santa Barbara attacker Cole Brosnan. He has 38 goals this season and is complemented in the Gaucho offense by utility Ivan Gvozdanovic, who leads the conference with 27 assists.
Wright said the offensive players on UC Santa Barbara – like attacker Leo Yuno – can score with the best in the country, and UCLA will have to be in a sharp defensive mindset.
“They have without a doubt some of the best shooters in the country,” Wright said. “They shoot in a lot of different ways and forms, like (Yuno) getting the ball off his hand maybe quicker than anybody in the country. If you don’t have a block up, you’re going to be in trouble, and the ball is going to be in the net before you know it.”
The Bruins only scored nine goals in their previous 9-8 defeat of the Gauchos, with sophomore attacker Ashworth Molthen leading the Bruins with three goals that day.
“As a team, we did a pretty good job finding live entries into centers,” Discipulo said. “But I think we have to work on holding our counterstructure better, and that will establish our offense better as we get down the pool this time around.”
First sprint will be at 7 p.m. on Friday at Spieker Aquatics Center.