With 7-5 Win over Rival Trojans, Bruins Capture 2020 Triton Women’s Water Polo Invite

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Abbi Hill, a freshman for UCLA, led the Bruins with two goals in the Triton Invite final. Photo Courtesy: Minette Rubin

LA JOLLA, CA. On a chilly Sunday night at the Canyonview Aquatic Center, UCLA seized control of a tight game and beat crosstown rival USC 7-5 in the championship game of the Triton Invitational. It was the Bruins first victory over the Trojans since April of 2017 and the first for Head Coach Adam Wright since he assumed the reins of the women’s team in 2018.

Afterwards, Wright—who has been competing against the Trojans since he was a freshman in Westwood in 1997—acknowledged the win’s significance.

“This is a tough tournament, [a] quick turnaround for both teams,” he said after the match. “Anytime we play USC it’s a tough game. They’re always well prepared.”

[2020 Women’s Water Polo Triton Invite Report: Arizona State Tops Host UCSD for Third]

The top-seeded Trojans, seeking a seventh consecutive Triton Invite championship, waltzed through Saturday’s first day of play with dominant wins over Villanova (19-3) and Long Beach State (15-6). On Sunday, USC faced host UC San Diego in the first semifinal. The Triton’s athletic department will begin its transition to Division 1 in the fall of 2020, but their women’s water polo team is playing in the Big West for the first time this season. And to reach the semifinal, they downed Big West member UC Santa Barbara 11-7.

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UCLA’s Georgia Phillips looks to be a great find for Bruin’s Coach Adam Wright. Photo Courtesy: Minette Rubin

Against USC, the Tritons showed plenty of fight, jumping to a 5-2 lead on the strength of power-play goals by Ciara Franke and Tera Richardson followed by a penalty conversion by Franke. The Trojans responded with three consecutive scores by Kelsey McIntosh (power-play), Mireia Guiral (power-play), and Grace Tehaney to make the halftime count even at five. The third quarter was a goal fest with the two teams notching nine between them to make the score 10-9 in favor of USC at the start of the fourth. The Trojans finished with a 4-2 fourth quarter to beat the home team 14-11. Lefty Tehaney collected five goals for the winners, Kelsey McIntosh had three goals and an assist and Denise Mammolito had a brilliant line with two goals, two assists and four steals. UC San Diego received three goals each from Richardson and Grace Pevehouse.

The Bruins path to the finals included wins on Saturday against Pomona Pitzer (21-2) and fellow Mountain Pacific Sports Federation member Indiana (12-9). Their semifinal game was against Arizona State, another conference foe. The Devils took a 4-3 lead early in the second quarter before UCLA reeled off five goals to lead 8-4 at intermission. The gap was 10-5 at the 3rd quarter break and ended 11-8. Katrina Drake had four goals for UCLA and Lexi Liebowitz added two in a winning cause.

UCLA vs USC: a compelling match-up no matter the sport

The championship game featured intense defense and solid goaltending on both sides. USC goalie Holly Parker and UCLA goalie Georgia Phillips each recorded 7 saves. Both teams killed off exclusions effectively, the Bruins going 1 for 6 and USC going 2 for 9 on their six on five chances.

There were three goals in the first three possessions of the game: The Bruins opened the scoring after winning the opening sprint with Brooke Maxson scoring. USC’s Tehaney continued her torrid play with a goal on the Trojans’ ensuing possession, but 17 seconds later Katrina Drake’s goal reclaimed the lead for UCLA.

Early in the 2nd period, USC converted a six on five courtesy of Mireia Guiral to tie the match at two. And a minute later Verica Bakoc scored an even strength goal, giving the Trojans a 3-2 lead. The Bruins got the equalizer from Freshman Abbi Hill to tie the game at three at intermission. In what proved to be the second of a three goal run by UCLA, Emily Skelly scored on a player advantage and Hill connected again for her second of the night to make the Bruin lead 5-3 with just over 4 minutes remaining in the third period.

The USC power play would strike again as Tehaney picked up her second score to make it 5-4 at the end of three periods. The Trojans got a much needed score from Kelsey McIntosh just under two minutes into the final period to tie the score at five. But, Bruin Sophomore Bella Baia came off the bench and finessed a lob into the right hand corner of the cage only 20 seconds later, scoring what turned out to be the game winner. Three minutes later, Myna Simmons scored from in front of the Trojan net to give the Bruins their final margin of victory.

After the game, Coach Wright was characteristically candid about his teams play.

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Abbi Hill Photo Courtesy: UCLA Athletics

“Tonight we made our lives more difficult than it needed to be, with our 6 on 5s turning the ball over too many times. Out of the first six 6 on 5s, three times we were called for inside the two meter line,” he lamented.

“On the flip side, our girls found a way to hang in there and put ourselves in a position to have a chance to win-so that’s a positive” Wright added.

When asked about his goalies, the Bruin coach admitted to an embarrassment of riches, the result of recruiting efforts the past two years.

“The luxury we have with this team is we have three really good goalies,” Wright said. “The last time we played (USC) at home last weekend, all three played and they all did a really good job”

He conceded that Phillips, the starter in Sunday’s final, may have the inside track.

“There’s no doubt that Georgia has more experience than Jahmea [Bent] and Quinn [Winter]. She’s shown that she can really clean up a lot of mess behind (our defense)” he explained.

Wright then highlighted his top netminder’s strengths.

“She’s good with quick shots out of set, she’s obviously good with shots coming from the outside,” he said. “I really believe we are just seeing the beginning of where she can go,” Wright concluded. “I think there’s potential for her to be the top goalie in college this year.”

Parity in the U.S. college game a reality on an Olympic year.

According to Wright, the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will have an out-sized effect on this college season.

“We have so many girls that this is their first year playing, but also with an Olympic year there’s lots of role changes,” he said. “There’s girls thrust into roles that they didn’t really foresee themselves being in this fast.

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UCLA’s Adam Wright Photo Courtesy: Minette Rubin

“I think that’s with every team—that’s the part of the reason you’re seeing this parity,” he added. “The other part is the growth of women’s water polo. It’s pretty cool that there are so many good programs—it’s great for our sport.”

Explaining the Bruins only loss this season—to UC Santa Barbara 0n their season’s first day—Wright said that the gap between the top teams has  narrowed for 2020.

“In the first weekend, we go up to Santa Barbara and played them (UCSB) in our second game. Give Santa Barbara credit, they’re a good team. We just weren’t ready to go” he said.

In his third season leading the UCLA women—and 11th leading the Bruin men—Wright has a clear idea what his players face game in and game out.

“I told our girls, anytime someone plays against UCLA, they’re going to give their best shot,” he explained. “Hopefully, at the end of the year we can look back to that being a huge learning moment for such a young team.”

Wright understands as well as anyone the ebbs and flows of a college season—and took a conservative view of his team’s success in La Jolla.

“It’s an important step for the girls who have been here for more than a year,” he said. “We’ve had some tough goes-last year  (against USC); we were down at one point by ten goals.  It’s a credit to the work they continue to put in, [But] it’s a journey and it takes time.”

“This isn’t the be all end all for us, but it’s a good win for our program,” said Wright, explaining his takeaways from the weekend. “This is a really good tournament [and] the girls should be proud of that. But, I think we’re really just scratching the surface of where we can go.”

Up next  for UCLA, USC and the rest of the nation’s Top-Ten teams: the Barbara Kalbus tournament, hosted by UC Irvine beginning Friday February 21. Unlike this weekend at Canyonview, joining the competition is Stanford, the nation’s new #1.

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