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Women’s water polo opens home, conference play with wins over California

Redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Georgia Phillips recorded 12 saves while only allowing five goals – the fewest goals allowed this year – in her first and only appearance so far this season in No. 2 UCLA women’s water polo conference-opener Saturday. (Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)

women's water polo

No. 6 California5
No. 2 UCLA11
No. 6 California8
No. 2 UCLA9

By Sam Settleman

March 15, 2021 4:17 p.m.

The Bruins commenced conference play with a pair of victories in their home-opening series.

No. 2 UCLA women’s water polo (4-0, 2-0 MPSF) dispatched its first conference opponent of the season, No. 6 California (5-2, 0-2), with two wins at Spieker Aquatics Center. While the Bruins did not trail for the entirety of their 11-5 triumph in the first half of the doubleheader, in the second game they found themselves behind for the first time since the opening minute of the season.

By halftime, Cal had doubled up UCLA, taking a 4-2 lead into the break Sunday. The Bruins were limited to 2-of-16 shooting in the first half.

“It started with our energy,” said coach Adam Wright. “Our spacing in the frontcourt was not good. It was a lifeless attack. Everybody was tentative except (junior center Ava Johnson), who is our center, so that doesn’t help much for the outside shooting. Not attacking like we were (Saturday) – ball down in the water, not faking, not stepping into the free space.”

Despite the offensive struggles to open the game, the team found its rhythm on the offensive end with four goals in the third quarter. Sophomore attacker Hannah Palmer rifled a shot across the face of the goal and scored the equalizer for UCLA with less than a minute remaining in the period.

The Bruins and Golden Bears went back and forth to start the closing quarter, trading two goals apiece in the first four minutes of the final frame.

After leading the team in goals in the first game of the series, it was senior attacker Lexi Liebowitz who delivered once again for UCLA, scoring the game-winner on a powerplay with just over a minute to play. The Bruins finished out the game with a shorthanded defensive stand as time expired.

“Those experiences will be good for us for the future – having to make a five-on-six stop, having to score out of timeouts,” Wright said. “Those were all positives because we’ll be in those situations again. It’s going to be a game that will be useful for sure for the future because you’re not always going to be at your best. And there’s key moments where you got to make stops or you’ve got to get goals. And they were able to do that.”

While the Bruins turned their Saturday victory into a 9-8 nail-biter over one of the premier programs in the country, Wright said it wasn’t his team’s best effort.

“It’s a good win against a really good team, but at the end of the day, we made our lives much more difficult than it needed to be,” Wright said.

It was a tale of two different days for UCLA, which started the series on Saturday shooting 3-of-3 from the pool and held Cal to one goal in the second half en route to a comfortable 11-5 victory.

In the cage for the Bruins on Saturday was redshirt sophomore goalkeeper Georgia Phillips, making her season debut after registering 9.13 saves per game a season ago. In her first action of the season, Phillips recorded 12 saves, an assist and a steal.

After missing the first three games of the season because of COVID-19 tracing protocols, Phillips said she was glad to be back in the pool.

“I was just really excited,” Phillips said. “I missed the team and competing with them. I was just really excited and amped and focused.”

While UCLA’s offensive and defensive performances both regressed Sunday from the series-opener, Johnson posted her first hat trick of the season. Wright said the tentativeness of his team’s perimeter shooters forced the ball into the hands of the junior center, who was able to take advantage of the extra touches with three goals on the day.

Johnson said her three-goal performance was a product of her teammates drawing extra attention.

“We have a lot of really good perimeter shooters on our team, so by them attacking the goal and forcing the perimeter defenders to come out, that really opens up the ball to come into center,” Johnson said. “I wouldn’t be able to do anything that I did today without my teammates. … Everyone doing their job, that’s how we win.”

The pair of victories also came in the Bruins’ first competition at Spieker Aquatics Center in more than 400 days. These games, however, looked a little different than last year’s home games.

“It’s a lot different not having our fans there and being able to cheer for us, but knowing that all of our families were behind the livestream and cheering for us wherever they may be is also just as reassuring – knowing that they’re rooting for us no matter what is awesome,” Johnson said.

UCLA will have a bye week before returning to the pool to take on No. 3 Stanford in its second of six conference doubleheaders this season.

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Sam Settleman | Assistant Sports editor
Settleman is currently an assistant Sports editor on the gymnastics, women's soccer, women's golf, women's water polo and men's water polo beats. He was previously a contributor on the gymnastics and women's water polo beats.
Settleman is currently an assistant Sports editor on the gymnastics, women's soccer, women's golf, women's water polo and men's water polo beats. He was previously a contributor on the gymnastics and women's water polo beats.
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