Opponent: #20 UC San Diego (17-11)
When: Friday, May 8, 3:30 PM PDT
Where: Avery Aquatics Center, Palo Alto, CA
Watch Online: NCAA Live
Live Stats: The Fosh
Our top-ranked women's water polo team begins its campaign to capture #113 this afternoon in Palo Alto against the #20 UCSD Tritons in an NCAA quarterfinal match. The Bruins earned the #1 seed by beating Cal in the MPSF title match. Stanford, the #2 team in the nation, is hosting the tournament.
There are four elite teams in women's water polo this season: UCLA, Stanford, California, and USC. In a certain sense, the opening round matches of the NCAA tournament are warmup games for these four teams. That doesn't mean that any one of these four heavy favorites can't or won't be beaten, but it's highly unlikely to happen. And since the NCAA tournament schedule involves three games in three days for the two teams that advance to the final, the ease with which the favorites dispatch their opening round opponents is important. Therefore, for the Bruins, it's essential that they put away the Tritons early.
Checking in on the Bruins
UCLA (24-2, 5-1) finished the regular season with just two losses--both to Stanford. The second defeat was a one-goal loss in Palo Alto that effectively awarded the Cardinal the MPSF regular season title. However, sandwiched between those two losses is a 7-6 overtime victory against Stanford at the UC Irvine Invitational.
When the Cardinal lost to the Golden Bears in an MPSF tournament semifinal, the Bruins lost the opportunity to win the MPSF Tournament Championship at the expense of Stanford. Nevertheless, it seems probable that there will be a final showdown between the Bruins and the Cardinal on the final day of the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, it will be played in the Cardinal's backyard again.
In my opinion, the Bruins have the best goalkeeper in the nation in senior Sami Hill. She earned All-MPSF honors again this season. Last season she was also voted MPSF Player of the Year and earned First-Team ACWPC All-America honors. Hill's 4.73 goals against average ranks her first among MPSF goalkeepers.
Although the strength of the team is its tenacious defense, the Bruins' unusually balanced attack gives their offense strength in flexibility. Junior All-American Rachel Fattal leads the Bruins in scoring with 52 goals, but five of her teammates have tallied over 20 goals. Senior attacker Emily Donohoe checks in with 36 goals, junior defender Alys Williams has 34 goals, and sophomore Mackenzie Barr has tallied 31 goals. Junior Kodi Hill isn't far behind with 27 goals, and freshman Devin Grab has registered 25 goals in her first season.
With that level of balance in the UCLA attack, and with the Bruins strength in defense, this is a team that has the right ingredients to win a national championship.
Scouting the Tritons
UCSD (17-11) earned its place in the NCAA tournament by winning the Western Water Polo Association title--its fourth title in the past five seasons. The Tritons beat Cal State East Bay 10-8 in the conference championship game.
For a second straight year, UCSD senior attacker Jolene Guiliana was selected as the tournament MVP. Guiliana is one of the Tritons' trio of big scorers; she's netted 55 goals and 48 assists so far in 2015. Guiliana earned All-WWPA Second Team honors for a second consecutive year.
The Tritons' leading scorer is junior attacker Laurel Kistler. Her 64 goals and 50 assists paced the Tritons. Kistler was named to the All-WWPA First Team in 2015 as was her teammate Julia Kirkland. Kirkland added 61 goals and 43 assists to give UCSD a potent trio of attackers.
The Tritons have an excellent goalkeeper in junior Courtney Miller. She's been All-WWPA First Team for two straight seasons, and this year she added WWPA Player of the Year to her list of honors.
Importantly, the Tritons have lost to teams that UCLA has beaten comfortably this season: Long Beach State, San Diego State, UC Santa Barbara. That doesn't bode well for the Tritons.
What to Expect
I expect to see a game very similar to the Bruins' opening round demolition of Cal State Bakersfield in the quarterfinals of the MPSF tournament. The Bruins came out very aggressively and held a touchdown lead over the Roadrunners at the end of the first quarter. That allowed the UCLA starters to play sparingly for the rest of the match, which is an important consideration in a three-day tournament. With the exact same format for the NCAA tournament, Coach Brandon Brooks will certainly want his bench to be playing significant minutes against the Tritons.
The key to how the Bruins win this game will be their defense. If UCLA can press as high up the pool as they did in the MPSF tournament without incurring exclusions, it will be a very difficult afternoon for the Tritons. My prediction is that the Bruins will lead by 10 at the half and will cruise to a very comfortable 16-7 victory.