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Fighting nerves, veterans lead UCLA women’s water polo in comeback over UC Irvine

Sophomore attacker Molly Renner faces off against a defender while holding the ball. Renner scored twice for No. 4 seed UCLA women’s water polo, including once on a penalty shot to give the Bruins their first lead. (Brandon Morquecho/Daily Bruin)

Women’s Water Polo


No. 4 seed UCLA14
UC Irvine12

By Cole Lizar

May 12, 2023 5:05 p.m.

Staring at a three-point deficit late in the second quarter, the Bruins were at risk of snapping their 33-game all-time win streak over the Anteaters.

But by the end of the third quarter, they had gained the lead.

Behind a nine-point second half, No. 4 seed UCLA women’s water polo (21-7, 4-2 MPSF) defeated UC Irvine (20-7, 7-0 Big West) with a final score of 14-12 despite failing to take a lead for almost three quarters of play at Eberhardt Aquatic Center in Stockton, California. Coach Adam Wright said the team struggled to overcome the nerves surrounding a high-stakes game like the quarterfinal of the NCAA tournament.

“We’re going to make sure we do anything and everything for us to continue to have a chance to play,” Wright said. “It’s normal this time of year for people to let nerves get the best of them in certain moments, but (senior attacker) Brooke Doten and (graduate student center) Ava (Johnson) have put us in a position where we are able to continue playing.”

After facing a two-point halftime deficit, the Bruins finally overtook the Anteaters behind four goals from the team’s veterans in the third quarter. UCLA faced a deficit of up to three points for the better part of the game.

Doten and graduate student attacker Val Ayala each notched a pair of goals, while a hat trick from Johnson paced the team.

Sophomore attacker Molly Renner – the only other Bruin able to score more than once in the contest – said the team’s upperclassmen helped to keep the rest of the team in line when the pressure of the tournament began to build.

“I appreciate everything that they do,” Renner said. “Their leadership throughout the whole week before the NCAA (tournament) really helped us prepare. And during the game, it was very important for them to step up and play their roles. … It really encouraged all us young players to step up to the occasion and work as hard as we can.”

Graduate student center Ava Johnson exhales while lifting the ball out of the water. Johnson led the Bruins with a hat trick, scoring on 60% of her shot attempts. (Brandon Morquecho/Daily Bruin)

Two players combined for nine of Irvine’s goals, but the Anteaters offensive efforts primarily rested on the shoulders of attacker Elena Flynn, who landed a hat trick in the third quarter and finished with half of her team’s 12 total goals.  

Despite devising a game plan to contain the sharp-shooting Flynn, Wright said the team failed to execute the defensive schemes they developed.

“Today we just kind of held on for dear life,” Wright said. “The goal in a sport is to see what team you can ultimately be by the end of the year, … and today, we restrained ourselves (with our defense). That was a disappointment because we’ve worked hard for the right to go out and play in these games.”

UCLA struggled in powerplay scenarios, denting the twine in only three of fourteen opportunities. Irvine, on the other hand, was able to convert more six-on-five goals despite being given fewer opportunities.

Throughout the game, the Bruins turned the ball over five times, all resulting from offensive fouls.  

Doten said many of the team’s shortcomings in the game stemmed from a lack of confidence and communication.

“Confidence is one of the main things we talked about going into this game,” Doten said. “We struggled a little bit with that at the beginning, but by the end, we pulled it together and were able to improve our communication and work together as a team.”

The Bruins will now advance to play Stanford on Saturday, with the opening sprint set for 5 p.m. in Stockton.

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Cole Lizar | Sports contributor
Lizar is currently a Sports contributor on the women's water polo beat. He was previously a contributor on the men's water polo beat.
Lizar is currently a Sports contributor on the women's water polo beat. He was previously a contributor on the men's water polo beat.
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