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Women’s water polo conquers Cardinal in NCAA semifinal matchup

Senior goalkeeper Jahmea Bent shattered her career high in saves, registering 18 to pair with two assists to lead UCLA women’s water polo to a chance at an NCAA championship. (Elise Tsai/Daily Bruin staff)

women’s water polo


No. 3 seed UCLA9
No. 2 seed Stanford7

By Sam Settleman

May 15, 2021 7:38 p.m.

The last time the Bruins beat the Cardinal in the NCAA tournament, coach Adam Wright was fresh off a silver medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Twelve years and three championship defeats later, the drought is no more.

“This is a huge step forward for UCLA women’s water polo,” Wright said. “I guess I’m biased, but I think this is the most storied program. We’ve been waiting for a long time for this opportunity.”

No. 3 seed UCLA water polo (15-4, 9-3 MPSF) avenged its Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament loss to No. 2 seed Stanford (13-6, 8-4) with a 9-7 victory in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament at Spieker Aquatics Center. The Bruins fell 13-8 to the same Cardinal team exactly two weeks ago in the MPSF semifinals.

This time around, UCLA ambushed Stanford out of the gates. Senior attacker Lexi Liebowitz took the opening sprint via a jump ball against Cardinal attacker Sarah Klass – sporting a 65-7 record in sprints entering the day – before junior utility Katrina Drake cashed in on the Bruins’ opening possession.

“Every year we’re competing to be at this level – we just haven’t executed in the past,” said senior defender Brooke Maxson.

With four different scorers in the first quarter, UCLA jumped out to a commanding 4-1 lead behind a seven-save effort in the period from senior goalkeeper Jahmea Bent – starting in the cage on back-to-back days for the first time all season.

But it took the Cardinal all of four minutes to get back in the game, opening the second quarter with three unanswered goals of their own. The teams traded defensive stops into the break with the score knotted at four goals apiece.

Bent finished the first half with 10 saves, including a stop on a penalty shot from MPSF Newcomer of the Year attacker Jewel Roemer that would have given Stanford its first lead of the evening.

“Jahmea and I have been on the team for a really long time together,” Maxson said. “It’s been really fun for the both of us to grow up on this team in a way. I’m so proud of her. She’s been doing really awesome. She’s huge in and out of the pool. She’s a leader on this team, and I couldn’t be more thankful for her.”

With the game leveled, the Bruins and Cardinal traded goals throughout the third period until sophomore utility Abbi Hill netted her first of the tournament to break the deadlock and give her team a 7-6 lead it would never relinquish.

At the third-quarter buzzer, Bent registered her 16th save of the game, good for a new career high. But the fourth-year goalkeeper out of Eagle Rock proved she could do more than block shots as she unloaded a long outlet pass to an open Liebowitz who converted to give UCLA a two-goal lead for the first time since early in the second quarter.

“I just was so ready and prepared for this game,” Bent said. “I just kept telling myself to stay focused, stay present, stay aggressive and stay sharp. And that was just my motivation throughout the entire game.”

Maxson tacked on one more goal to earn the first hat trick of her five-year career and extend the lead to 9-6, which proved to be too much to overcome for the Cardinal. Bent picked up her career-best-shattering 18th save with less than a minute on the clock to seal the victory.

As the longest-tenured Bruin, Maxson provided much-needed experience, according to Wright.

“It was really a joy to see because she’s worked so hard for this,” Wright said. “She’s had surgeries. She decided to come back after the COVID year. And I’m really, really happy for how she played for us today.”

UCLA nearly halved Stanford’s scoring output from the last time the teams met, holding the Cardinal to just seven goals behind Bent’s dominant outing and nine total steals, including three from junior attacker Val Ayala, who also stands alone atop the tournament leaderboard for field blocks.

The win propels the Bruins to their first NCAA championship game since 2017, with a chance to claim the program’s first title since 2009. It will be a Crosstown Splashdown in the national championship game for the first time since that 2009 title, with No. 1 seed USC lining up across from UCLA with the rights to the trophy on the line.

“Tomorrow we have the biggest opportunity that this program has had in a long time,” Wright said. “And we know what we’re up against.”

The Bruins and Trojans have met twice this season, with USC claiming the first matchup 5-3, but UCLA storming back the following afternoon to hand the Trojans their only loss of the season and worst loss in the last 20 years.

Bent labeled the 13-6 win over crosstown rival USC to close out the regular season as the moment she knew the team was a national championship contender.

“As long as we stay sharp, and we are on the attack, we have our defense, then we are the national champions,” Bent said. “I believe it with all my heart.”

First sprint for the national championship game is at 3 p.m. on Sunday.

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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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