The UCLA men’s water polo team has a right to be tired. After last weekend’s loss to USC, practices have been physically demanding, and it showed after a sluggish two-game weekend.
The Bruins came out unscathed, defeating UC Santa Barbara on the road Sunday 9-8, one day after beating Pepperdine at home 13-8, but weren’t especially pleased with the way they started in each game.
The defense became the focus in Sunday’s game against the No. 7 Gauchos. The No. 4 Bruins (18-4, 6-2 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) managed to hold off a determined Gaucho offense, which traded back-and-forth ejections and goals throughout the game.
Despite strong performances by redshirt senior center Jacob Murphy, who scored three goals, sophomore attacker Josh Samuels, who scored two and freshman goalkeeper James Hartshorne, who had nine saves, the game came down to the last minute.
With seconds left, the Gauchos (10-10, 1-6) earned an exclusion and threatened to tie the score, but the practiced quickness of the Bruin defense prevented the goal.
“It was similar to the Pepperdine game,” Hartshorne said. “Maybe we started out a little slow, but made the stops in the second half when we needed to.”
The game one day earlier was a bit of a scare for UCLA. No. 10 Pepperdine (9-14, 1-6) came out firing, and the score was tied at six going into the half.
“We just didn’t play well in the first half,” Samuels said. “There were some goals made that we don’t like to give up: goals out of center, counter-attack goals. As a team, we just needed to pick it up.”
And pick it up they certainly did. UCLA began to take advantage of Pepperdine’s aggressive style to draw exclusion fouls and capitalize on the ensuing 6-on-5 power-play opportunities.
The seven goals scored in the second half of Saturday’s game came from six players, bringing the final score to a respectable 13-8.
But for the Bruins, this offensive success isn’t the most important aspect of the game.
“There’s one thing that’s going to decide how the rest of the year’s going to go, and that’s our defense,” coach Adam Wright said. “It’s going to show me how bad they really want this.”
The close decision against Santa Barbara is only a preview of the challenges UCLA will face in the upcoming MPSF Tournament, held over Thanksgiving weekend at Stanford. With No. 3 Stanford’s loss to Pacific on Sunday, UCLA stands at second in the conference.
This guarantees the Bruins no lower than a fourth seed in the tournament, and if this weekend’s successes are any indication, they have a real shot at the conference title.
“At the end of the day, (Santa Barbara was) a good win,” Wright said. “If you want to be the best, you have to be able to make big stops like that, and the guys did it.”