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UCLA women’s water polo seeks to overcome fears ahead of NCAA tournament

Coach Adam Wright and UCLA women’s water polo will enter the NCAA tournament as the No. 4 seed after losing four of their last six games to close out the season. (Joseph Jimenez/Daily Bruin)

By Kyle Boal

April 28, 2022 9:04 p.m.

The Bruins are eight days away from the NCAA tournament.

In order for his team to have its chance in the end, coach Adam Wright said there will be a mental block to overcome.

“The reality is we got less than two weeks to turn it around,” Wright said. “We made our own situation this weekend (at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament). But, we have a new life. And we have to understand that we have to change because now there’s no more second chances.”

No. 4 seed UCLA women’s water polo (23-5, 4-2 MPSF) was given the final at-large bid after losing four of its last six, including its most recent contests with No. 3 seed California and No. 2 seed USC, as well as all three matchups with top-seeded Stanford this season.

After averaging a score of 15.2-5.9 en route to a perfect 18-0 record through Feb. 26, the Bruins’ average plummeted to 10.8-9.4 over the next ten games.

In the semifinals of the MPSF tournament, UCLA was outscored by Stanford 4-1 in the opening and final quarters – the first time an opposing team outscored the blue and gold by three twice in one game since the Bruins’ historic loss to the Trojans in the 2021 national championship.

Redshirt senior attacker Maddie Musselman said it’s the responsibility of the older players on the team to bring comfort in high-tension situations.

“You can tell when certain people haven’t been in a position like this in a big game,” Musselman said. “Technically, we’re supposed to treat every single game the same. And you can see it spiral in some people.”

Following UCLA posting its first double-digit win in over two months in the conference tournament’s opening round against Indiana, Wright said his team’s defensive approach against Stanford in the semifinals highlighted a fear that needs to be conquered.

“Our approach today (against Stanford) was completely different than our approach yesterday (against Indiana),” Wright said. “A 3-4 zone is a 3-4 zone. But it’s mental. To this point, we’ve made it clear that we approach playing Stanford very differently.”

With a potential win against Big West champion UC Irvine on May 6, UCLA will be tasked with overcoming Stanford for the first time in four attempts this season.

All-MPSF Second Team honoree and senior center Ava Johnson said the Bruins give power to the Cardinal because of the Olympians on their roster.

“I do think that because of the Stanford name and the players that they have now, we give them way more credit and power than we should,” Johnson said. “We continue to dig ourselves a mental hole because we keep giving more power to them. We need to find our way out of that.”

With only a few more days of practice until the final weekend of the season, Johnson said her team is emphasizing playing fearlessly.

“Making sure we get the ball twice to the pocket, making sure that we’re making the extra pass, approaching the goal with confidence,” Johnson said. “For some reason, we’re able to do that in practice. And here (against Stanford) we’re not. … I hope that we’re able to overcome that by NCAAs.”

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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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