Despite putting together one of the best defensive performances of the year, a slow offensive start was too much to overcome as the sixth-seeded Princeton women’s water polo team fell 8-6 to third-seeded UCLA in the NCAA Championship quarterfinals Friday.
"I'm really excited about the way our (team) played, unfortunately we had some chances in that second quarter and we had some turnovers that (UCLA) capitalized on to score some quick goals," said head coach Luis Nicolao. "Other than that I thought we played really well, fought hard and fell a little short unfortunately."
Freshman Ashleigh Johnson put on an exceptional performance in her first NCAA appearance. She tallied nine saves and two steals, orchestrating the defense to limit the third-ranked team in the nation consistently throughout the game.
The Tigers opened with a solid defensive game plan, forcing UCLA to take hurried or off angle shots and miss on its first four attempts. Despite holding off the Bruins, Princeton was unable to capitalize on its offensive drives and first series of shots all came from the left side of the goal and went high or wide.
A scrum in front of the cage at 1:56 awarded UCLA a 5-meter penalty, setting up a 2-0 run by the Bruins.
Avoiding a shutout quarter, Jessie Holechek came in off the bench to cut UCLA’s lead in half. She received a pass from Kelly Gross and found a clear lane to send in Princeton’s first goal with 59 seconds left.
The second quarter saw multiple missed attempts, as both defenses deflected all offensive drives until the clock hit the two-minute mark. Over the final 120 seconds, UCLA went on a 3-0 run, including being awarded its second 5-meter penalty.
Again there was Holechek to help Princeton avoid a shutout quarter, firing in a long range shot with 17 seconds left to send the Tigers into halftime trailing 6-2.
There was no initial second half offensive surge for the Tigers, as the third quarter saw a scoreless period from both sides.
UCLA added to its lead 27 seconds into the fourth, but Katie Rigler responded with back-to-back goals on a cross cage shot at 7:10 and a skip shot to the left at 4:37 to make it a 7-4 game.
Rigler ignited more urgency within the Princeton offense, but it came a little too late.
Brittany Zwirner found the back of the net at 1:43 and Rigler notched the hat trick with 18 seconds left in regulation to lead the offense.
Zwirner finished with three steals, while Camille Hooks and Molly McBee combined for five steals and an assist apiece.
The Tigers (26-6) will now face seventh-seeded Iona (21-9) in the consolation bracket on Saturday at 1:45 p.m. In its first meeting this season, Princeton defeated the Gaels 14-11 on Feb 23 at the CWPA/MAAC Crossover.
No. 6 Princeton: 1 – 1 – 0 – 4 - 6
No. 3 UCLA: 2 – 4 – 0 – 2 - 8
Goals: Holechek 2, Rigler 3, Zwirner 1
Assists: Hooks 1, McBee 1
Steals: Soroka 2, Hooks 2, McBee 1, Zwirner 3, Johnson 2
Saves: Johnson 9