Women’s water polo improves power-play defense, perseveres in 5-on-6 situations
Junior attacker Val Ayala recorded three steals in UCLA women’s water polo’s recent four-game stretch. (Elise Tsai/Daily Bruin staff)
By Kyle Boal
April 20, 2021 9:26 p.m.
Down a player is when the Bruins are at their statistical best defensively.
No. 3 UCLA women’s water polo (10-2, 8-2 MPSF) held No. 5 Arizona State (12-9, 6-6) and No. 13 Indiana (9-13, 1-9) to 3-of-29 during five-on-six situations in its stretch of four games in four days last weekend, including 0-of-22 through the first three contests.
The Bruins have surrendered 25 out of 113 attempts when down a player this season, good for under 25%. No. 16 San Jose State is responsible for the best power-play percentage against UCLA this season, going 4-of-9 on April 4.
A season prior, the Bruins’ opponents went 24-of-89 when up a player through 12 games and 45-of-166 overall, both percentages higher than in 2021.
The team leader in steals and field blocks a season ago, sophomore utility Abbi Hill said UCLA had to adjust to designed six-on-five plays it had never seen before.
“The teams we’re playing run some six-on-five plays that we weren’t used to,” Hill said. “We had to practice that, and I think that we’re super prepared going into the games in terms of five-on-six. And also, it’s just a really exciting thing in the game. When you get a five-on-six stop, it’s really rewarding.”
The Bruins have allowed an average of 8.9 goals per game this season, a three-goal regression from 5.9 goals per game through 21 games last season. Whereas UCLA had 17 unique opponents in 2020, the team is set to face only eight in 2021.
Junior attacker Val Ayala – third on the team in steals in 2020 while registering three over the four-game stretch – said a teammate being excluded gives the Bruins more motivation to get a stop.
“Five-on-six is where you see the heart of a team,” Ayala said. “When you’re down a person, that’s an opportunity for you to raise your energy and to just step up to the challenge – an opportunity to not allow the past situation to affect what’s going to happen in the future. We can’t control the refs and if they’re going to kick someone out or not, but we can control how we respond to it.”
Hill reiterated stopping opponents’ power plays is something UCLA emphasizes.
“It shows who you are as a team and what you can do,” Hill said. “If you can stop the other team, it shows how much grit you have. It shows how much you’re dedicated to doing what you need to do in order to be successful.”
Excluded 129 times this season, the Bruins average about 10.8 exclusions per game – giving the other teams no shortage of opportunities to score while up a player. UCLA has drawn 114 exclusions but converted on 41-of-103 of its own power plays that produced a shot.
The team’s final regular-season opponent, undefeated No. 1 USC, has converted on 46-of-125 of its six-on-five situations this season. The Bruins held the Trojans to 2-of-9 on power plays in their win last season at the Triton Invitational but allowed 2-of-7 in their loss later that year.
Junior utility Katrina Drake said the team’s success this season defensively is a testament to the work it puts in during practice.
“Just practicing, knowing where our angles are, knowing where our blocks are, trying to move out on certain shooters who we know want the ball and are going to try and shoot the ball,” Drake said. “Seeing what we’re doing in practice being implemented in the games is pretty exciting just because it shows that there is progress being made, and it’s definitely setting us up well in the future.”