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No. 3 seed women’s water polo looks to shore up play entering NCAA championship

Despite losing 13-8 to Stanford at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament, UCLA women’s water polo is confident it can topple the Cardinal should they meet again at the NCAA tournament hosted at the Bruins’ Spieker Aquatics Center. (Elise Tsai/Daily Bruin staff)

By Kyle Boal

May 11, 2021 3:52 p.m.

Despite being the third-ranked team in the nation, the Bruins enter the last week of the season riding their most lopsided defeat of the campaign.

After No. 3 seed UCLA women’s water polo (13-4, 9-3 MPSF) suffered its worst loss of the season to No. 2 seed Stanford (12-5, 8-4) at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament and finished in third place for the second consecutive time, the Bruins are set to host the NCAA tournament at Spieker Aquatics Center from May 14 to May 16.

Coach Adam Wright said his team’s performance against the Cardinal was disappointing.

“We absolutely didn’t even attack the ball, we didn’t force them to play defense, we didn’t even get shots off, we lost the ball, we couldn’t hold the ball, (and) when we were taking the ball we lost it,” Wright said. “We got a chunk of time here now to get back and address those things because that’s going to obviously be a really important area moving forward. We don’t want to make our life more difficult than it has to be.”

After only scoring six goals in 14 regular-season games, junior attacker Bella Baia tied sophomore utility Abbi Hill to lead the team in goals. Baia scored seven goals in the conference tournament and led all participating players in points with 12 through the three games. Baia failed to score a goal against Stanford in the semifinals but did earn two assists.

The Mater Dei High School graduate said the Bruins weren’t in control in their lone loss at the conference tournament and described her team’s preferred style of play.

“UCLA water polo is winning every single loose ball,” Baia said. “We’re going control the counter, we’re not going to let them control us and we’re not going to be afraid. When we were playing Stanford, we were hesitant and they made us panic. When we play at UCLA’s pace, we’re not panicking, we’re controlling the game.”

The semifinal loss brought UCLA’s record against Stanford to 1-2 this season, but in its lone win, the blue and gold took a commanding 9-4 lead in the third quarter before allowing five straight goals. The Bruins would end up winning the game 11-10.

The only team to defeat top-seeded USC this season, the Bruins handed the crosstown rival Trojans their worst loss since 2001 on Senior Day at Spieker Aquatics Center.

Wright – who coached the men’s team to a national championship in March – said the glimpses of dominance his team has shown makes him confident heading into the NCAA tournament despite the third-place finish in the MPSF tournament.

“I believe, when we do things the right way, no matter who we’re playing, we’re going to have our opportunity to be successful,” Wright said. “I’ve been saying that to the team all year and I wouldn’t tell them that if I didn’t believe it. We’ve demonstrated that on occasion against the best teams. Consistency is going to be key because there’s no second chances moving forward.”

After leading the team in goals with 41 as a freshman in 2020, Hill registered only 11 through UCLA’s first 11 games. In the last six games, however, the All-MPSF First Team selection has found the back of the net 13 times.

Hill said with three potential games before the season’s end, the Bruins are focused on one opponent at a time.

“We’re just gonna have to take things one day at a time and really focus,” Hill said. “It’s do or die.”

UCLA will face No. 6 seed Hawaii in both team’s opening round and the winner will move on to likely face Stanford. Baia said she’s confident that her team can defeat the Cardinal if they meet again in the NCAA semifinals.

“When we play together as a team, we’re pretty unsolvable,” Baia said. “I feel really confident going into the NCAA tournament. If we can play with more energy, and stick to our themes and our values, I think we’ll get the job done.”

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Kyle Boal | Sports senior staff
Boal is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was an assistant Sports editor on the gymnastics, rowing, swim and dive, men's water polo and women's water polo beats. Boal was previously a contributor on the men's water polo and women's water polo beats.
Boal is currently a Sports senior staff writer. He was an assistant Sports editor on the gymnastics, rowing, swim and dive, men's water polo and women's water polo beats. Boal was previously a contributor on the men's water polo and women's water polo beats.
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