Women’s water polo NCAA tournament predictions
Senior attacker Lexi Liebowitz will play in her third and final NCAA championship with UCLA women’s water polo this weekend. The Bruins have not made the championship game since 2017. (Christine Kao/Daily Bruin staff)
By Taiyo Keilin, Jack Perez, Sam Settleman, and Kyle Boal
May 12, 2021 6:02 p.m.
Hosting the NCAA tournament at Spieker Aquatics Center, No. 3 seed UCLA women’s water polo (13-4, 9-3 MPSF) will take on No. 6 seed and Big West champion Hawaii (11-1, 3-1 Big West) in the first round. With a win, UCLA would advance to face the winner of No. 2 seed Stanford (12-5, 8-4 MPSF) and the winner of respective conference champions Cal Lutheran (7-0, 3-0 SCIAC) and Fresno State (12-5, 6-1 GCC). On the other side of the bracket, No. 1 seed USC (19-1, 11-1 MPSF) awaits the winner of Western Water Polo association champion Salem (18-11) and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion Marist (8-0, 5-0 MAAC). No. 4 seed Arizona State (13-11, 6-6 MPSF) takes on No. 5 seed and Collegiate Water Polo Association champion Michigan (21-4, 6-0 CWPA). Read Daily Bruin Sports’ opinions on where the Bruins will finish on their hunt for a national title in Los Angeles.
Daily Bruin reporter
Prediction: NCAA champions
The Bruins simply do not lose two games in a row to the same opponent.
It hasn’t happened all season, and it won’t happen this weekend.
It’s no secret that UCLA will likely need to overcome Stanford and USC to claim its first national title since 2009. The Cardinal and Trojans have split each of the previous 10 NCAA championships despite the Bruins still holding the all-time record with 11.
But the title pursuit begins with Hawaii. The Rainbow Wahine catapulted into the No. 5 spot with a win over UC Irvine after hovering around No. 8 in the national rankings for much of the season. UCLA and Hawaii have yet to match up this season, but the Bruins took down the Anteaters 13-9 in February, with the final score painting a picture of a closer game than reality depicted.
When they last met in 2020, UCLA bested Hawaii 10-5. Friday’s contest should be much of the same.
In all likelihood, an opening-round victory would set up a date with Stanford in Saturday’s semifinals. The one-loss Trojans may be the team to beat in the tournament, but the Cardinal, as the only team to hold a winning record all-time against the blue and gold, pose the biggest threat to the Bruins.
Stanford handed UCLA its only loss by more than two goals this season in the semifinal of the MPSF tournament. The Bruins will be well-equipped to avenge their most recent loss and topple the Cardinal in the fourth meeting between the squads as there is no opponent they have seen more of this season.
The recipe is simple. If UCLA can fare better than 0-for-13 on the power play and put together a defensive outing that mirrors its performances against top-seeded USC, the blue and gold will emerge victorious.
Should the Bruins advance to the NCAA championship game Sunday, it would likely be round three of the Crosstown Splashdown. In both previous games, UCLA was able to silence USC’s dynamic attack, culminating in a dominant 13-6 win to end USC’s 23-game win streak.
I most recently failed to predict UCLA faltering in the MPSF semifinals. But like the Bruins, I don’t think I’ll end up on the losing side twice in a row.
This will not be the year for coach Adam Wright to break his curse.
While the UCLA alumnus has had success both during his time as a player and at the helm of the men’s team, Wright has yet to lead the women’s water polo team to the final of the NCAA championship, much less a title.
UCLA has not made it to the final since former coach Brandon Brooks led the team to a one-goal defeat against Stanford in 2017. The last time the women’s team came out on top was back in 2009 when coach Adam Krikorian led his team to its fifth consecutive title in a 5-4 win over USC.
Since then, UCLA has been close to the finish line but never had quite enough to get over the final hurdles. In 2019 – the last time women’s water polo was able to finish its season – the Bruins were one goal away from having a chance to compete for the title before an overtime loss to Stanford ended the season.
One thing going for UCLA is home-pool advantage. In each of their losses during the last two NCAA tournaments, the Bruins lost to the Cardinal and Trojans on their respective campuses. This season, UCLA will host at Spieker Aquatics Center.
If the team that beat USC 13-6 and played Stanford to two one-goal games in February shows up, Wright’s squad has a real shot. However, if the Bruins who fell 5-3 to the Trojans and 13-8 to the Cardinal play, it might be an early exit.
The inconsistency is worrisome, and UCLA will bow out in a very close semifinal against Stanford.
Assistant Sports editor
Prediction: NCAA champions
The Bruins have the hardest path to a national title.
If at any point UCLA overlooks an opponent, its season will come to an end. The blue and gold drew Hawaii in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament, a team the Bruins are 52-3 against all-time. But led by Big West Newcomer Freshman of the Year Lucia Gomez de la Puente – who has totaled 41 points in 12 games – the Rainbow Wahine are not an easy opponent.
Hawaii has won 11 straight since dropping their season-opener to UC San Diego. Assuming the Bruins can advance, the road to 120 does not get easier.
Stanford, who will play the winner of Cal Lutheran and Fresno State, has a significantly easier opening round and will be fresh for a potential rematch with UCLA on Saturday. In their last nine meetings with the Cardinal, the Bruins have only won once – a game earlier this season in which UCLA almost blew a five-goal lead.
MPSF Newcomer of the Year Jewel Roemer paired with drivers Sarah Klass and Hannah Constandse and 2-meter defender Chloe Harbilas have proven to be a challenge to stop this season, combining for 26 of Stanford’s 35 goals against the Bruins this season.
The last time UCLA faced Stanford in a tournament game at Spieker Aquatics Center was in 2017, in which the Bruins emerged victorious as MPSF champions. Using an embarrassing 13-8 loss to the Cardinal this season in the MPSF semifinals as motivation, the blue and gold will overcome Stanford 13-10 in the team’s final meeting of the year.
Assuming USC can overcome California and either Arizona State or Michigan, the Trojans perhaps have the easiest path to the finals as the top seed.
And yet, in my two years covering sports at the Daily Bruin, I’ve never seen a group want to win a national title more than this UCLA women’s team – including the men’s team that brought back trophy No. 119 to Westwood earlier this year.
Sure, the Cardinal and Trojans have traded titles for the last decade. But, the Bruins were waiting to break through a season ago – defeating USC once and finishing 19-2 – before the season was canceled at the pandemic’s start.
After having the season taken away from them in 2020, not even the hardest path to the title can stop UCLA this season. With home-pool advantage and a chip on the team’s shoulder, the Bruins will win the national title 9-7 and bring the school’s 120th national title to Westwood. Wright wins two national titles in only a matter of months and the women will celebrate a championship that was years in the making.
Assistant Sports editor
Prediction: NCAA runners-up
Another year, another trophy-less season for the Bruins.
Although UCLA beat two of the three teams it will likely need to get through to take home a national championship – and should not have too much of an issue with Hawaii in the first round – it has also lost to both Stanford and USC.
The Bruins split a pair of games decided by one goal against the Cardinal during the regular season before they were handed their worst loss since February 2019 in the second round of the MPSF tournament at the beginning of the month.
Reading Sam’s prediction has assured me I should not expect that again. In what will likely be a tight contest for a majority of the 32 minutes, UCLA will get some late magic – perhaps a career-high 6 goals in the match from its leading scorer, sophomore attacker Hannah Palmer, lifting the blue and gold to its fourth national championship game in its last seven tournament appearances.
However, like they did in each of the four times prior, the Bruins will only be able to watch a team celebrate winning the title, as the Women of Troy – out for revenge over the 13-6 drubbing at the paws of the Bruins on April 25 – will travel from Westwood back to downtown Los Angeles carrying their 109th NCAA trophy.
If losing to USC in a national title game once is not enough to spark rage among UCLA fans, the loss will be exactly one week after the schools met with a beach volleyball title on the line. The Trojans took that trophy from the back-to-back defending champs and will take another from the 11-time NCAA-champion Bruins on May 16.