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Perfection: UCLA women’s water polo wins NCAA title, completes undefeated season

Members of UCLA women’s water polo hold up their trophies. (Karla Cardenas-Felipe/Daily Bruin)

Women’s Water Polo

No. 1 seed UCLA7
No. 3 seed California4

By Una O'Farrell

May 12, 2024 10:11 p.m.

This post was updated May 12 at 10:32 p.m.

BERKELEY – Twenty-six in a row.

It’s the number of consecutive miles needed to complete a marathon, widely regarded as a true test of endurance and perseverance.

And for the Bruins, it’s the number of victories recorded to complete a marathon of their own – an undefeated season culminating in their first NCAA championship title in 15 years.

“UCLA women’s water polo is back on the map,” said coach Adam Wright.

No. 1 seed UCLA women’s water polo (26-0, 6-0 MPSF) took down No. 3 seed California (19-7, 4-2) in Berkeley on Sunday evening to claim its place as 2024 national champions and hand the school its 123rd national championship. The win marks the team’s first NCAA title since 2009, eighth in program history and the first of Wright’s seven-year tenure.

After the Golden Bears opened the scoring, senior attacker Anneliese Miller buried the first goal of the game for the Bruins, tying the contest at one apiece at the end of the first quarter.

Freshman utility Natasha Kieckhafer rocketed the ball into an open net for UCLA’s second goal, assisted by sophomore utility Anna Pearson, after Cal’s defense collapsed on the center.

Tied at the half, neither team had converted either of its 6-on-5 opportunities, and both had only found the back of the net twice on 18 combined attempts.

The back-and-forth play continued between the two MPSF competitors throughout the third quarter, with the Golden Bears tying the game 3-3 after a 6-on-5 goal with three minutes left in the period.

But the knot would soon be unraveled.

Graduate student attacker Hannah Palmer fed freshman utility Panni Szegedi for her second goal of the match, handing the Bruins a 4-3 lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

“I think we’re most proud of the culture we held within the group the whole way through,” Palmer said. “This is the closest I’ve ever been with a team, and that’s super special.”

A Palmer-assisted 6-on-5 goal from sophomore attacker Taylor Smith gave the Bruins their largest lead of the game, up 6-3 with just two minutes to go.

After a timeout called by Cal, UCLA re-entered the pool mere moments away from claiming its eighth national championship.

“I’m the one probably not keeping things emotionally in check,” Wright said. “They were saying, ‘One more stop, one more stop,’ and that’s just how dialed in they are.”

Coach Adam Wright claps and smiles as the Bruins celebrate their national championship. (Karla Cardenas-Felipe/Daily Bruin)

Szegedi notched the last goal in the final 25 seconds of the game into an empty net – completing her hat trick – as the Bruins reigned victorious over the Golden Bears in a 7-4 victory, limiting them to their lowest number of goals scored all season.

The buzzer rang out on the pool deck as every member of the team – including those not dressed for the game – leapt into the pool.

Palmer said celebrating with her teammates in that moment felt amazing.

“’Drowning in love.’ Those are the words I would explain it as. Everyone was just so happy and excited,” Palmer said. “We knew we put in the hard work all year.”

Wright raised a fist above the water to lead the team in an 8-clap.

Cheers of “She’s in high school” erupted from her teammates as freshman goalkeeper Lauren Steele – who graduated high school a semester early to play with the team this season – received Most Outstanding Player of the tournament, adding 17 saves to her season total of 268.

The Bruins’ undefeated season marks the fifth in NCAA history and the third for UCLA.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Wright said. “But it feels so good to see UCLA back on top.”

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Una O'Farrell
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