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UCLA women’s water polo falls to California, finishes 4th in MPSF tournament

No. 3 seed UCLA women’s water polo players look on during a defeat to No. 4 seed California on Sunday. (Joseph Jimenez/Daily Bruin)

Women's Water Polo

No. 3 seed UCLA9
No. 4 seed California10

By Kyle Boal

April 24, 2022 11:19 p.m.

For the second time this century, the Bruins failed to claim a podium spot in the conference tournament.

No. 3 seed UCLA women’s water polo (23-5, 4-2 MPSF) was upset 10-9 by No. 4 seed California (16-5, 3-3) in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament third-place game at the Uytengsu Aquatics Center on Sunday. The loss marked the Bruins’ first defeat to the Golden Bears since 2019.

After falling behind 4-0 four minutes into the semifinals the day prior to eventual MPSF champion Stanford, UCLA fell behind 4-0 again to Cal in under six minutes into the opening period. The blue and gold had not faced a deficit larger than three entering the tournament.

“I really thought (Sunday) we would come out with a different energy, and we didn’t,” said coach Adam Wright. “It’s disappointing. Unfortunately, we built this weekend up to be something way more than it is instead of just worrying about the task at hand.”

The Bruins either tied or outscored the Golden Bears in every remaining quarter after the first.

After an illegal entry on Cal drew a penalty shot late in the second quarter, redshirt senior attacker Maddie Musselman skipped in a goal on the left side to cut the lead to 6-3. On the next offensive possession, junior utility Abbi Hill drew a penalty shot that Musselman converted once more to bring the game within two.

Musselman said despite falling behind early, she believes in her team’s ability to fight back.

“We make it harder than it has to be a lot of the time, but it’s not impossible, (and) there’s still ways to win,” Musselman said. “We get to a conference tournament, and the last thing you want is to be down by four. But at the end of the day, we trained for that, and we practice those situations all the time.”

After the two teams traded two goals apiece to open the third frame, Musselman found junior attacker Hannah Palmer, who scored her second of three goals on the day to bring the Bruins within one at 8-7.

(Megan Cai/Daily Bruin)
Junior attacker Hannah Palmer floats a pass. (Megan Cai/Daily Bruin)

Cal attacker Ruby Swadling scored her fourth goal of the contest one minute into the final frame, reclaiming the Golden Bears’ multigoal advantage. Senior utility Katrina Drake drew a penalty shot on the following possession, which Musselman successfully deposited into the goal to bring the game to 9-8.

However, Cal attacker Emma Wright would score her fifth goal of the game on the following possession to put the Bruins down two with six minutes to play. Palmer scored the final goal of the contest on a power play with less than three minutes remaining.

Drake said UCLA should have recognized Wright’s and Swadling’s early dominance and adjusted.

“That’s never something that you want, is to have one or two players running the show for the other team,” Drake said. “It’s something that is pretty straightforward that you can catch early and then something that we should be trying to correct.”

The Bruins called a timeout with a minute and a half to play and the deficit standing at one, but senior attacker Val Ayala’s potential game-tying shot was blocked. UCLA retrieved the rebound, but sophomore attacker Malia Allen missed off the post.

After stopping the Golden Bears on their final possession, the Bruins called timeout again with 20 seconds remaining. Musselman wore the 1B goalkeeper cap to lead UCLA in a 7-on-6 attempt with a chance to tie the game and send it to overtime.

With the Bruins passing the ball around, Musselman dished it to freshman attacker Emma Lineback, who let a shot go with four seconds to play, but Cal’s first-team all-MPSF goalkeeper Isabel Williams hauled in her 14th save as the final buzzer sounded.

“In a moment like that, especially with 7-on-6, the whole tactic is to draw the defense,” Musselman said. “There was another opportunity to keep going, and we’ve practiced that all week, and it’s kind of disappointing that we didn’t finish in that position.”

The Bruins’ fate now lies in the NCAA selection committee’s hands, with UCLA hoping to claim one of three at-large bids for the NCAA tournament May 6-8.

Wright said his team will need to quickly reset with no more second chances.

“You got to be lights out in those moments where you’re not at your best state,” Wright said. “We haven’t figured that out yet. That’s my responsibility. We got 10 days to figure that out because, from here on out, the reality is if we don’t get it done, we’re done for the year.”

With the team’s future uncertain, Drake said UCLA needs to have more confidence in its own abilities despite losing four of its last six games.

“It’s just a matter of trying to figure out a way to recognize and believe in ourselves that we can be the best team in the nation,” Drake said.

Selections for the NCAA tournament will be announced Monday at 5 p.m.

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Kyle Boal | Sports senior staff
Boal is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women's water polo beat. 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 on the women's water polo beat. 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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