LA JOLLA, Calif. - The second-seeded UC San Diego women's water polo team edged sixth-seeded Cal State Monterey Bay 10-9 in the semifinals of the Western Water Polo Association Championships on Saturday afternoon at Canyonview Aquatic Center.
UCSD (21-13, 10-2 WWPA) will face top-seed Loyola Marymount (19-9, 12-0 WWPA) at 3:00 p.m. for the conference championship with an automatic bid to the NCAA Championships on the line.
"It's what we started this whole season saying: three months from the day we start, we said we wanted to be in the championship game. And here we are," said UCSD head coach Brad Kreutzkamp.
It didn't come easy.
Led by a first-quarter hat trick by Nikki Smart, CSUMB jumped out to a 4-1 lead just five minutes into the contest as the Tritons struggled to find the frame. However, the Tritons held the Otters scoreless in the second, scoring five unanswered goals to take a two-goal lead midway through the third.
"We needed to put the ball on-cage. Being down 4-1, we actually have to score goals to get back in the game. I was actually really proud of our defense because through the second and third quarters we only gave up one goal, which allowed us to chip back in. If they keep scoring goals on us there, it's hard to make a comeback," said Kreutzkamp.
Tied 6-6 in the fourth quarter, Sarah Lizotte scored twice before Melissa Bartow beat her defender one-on-one for a goal to give UCSD a 9-6 cushion with 4:58 to play. CSUMB made it 9-8, but Katherine Biehle touched-in a breakaway goal off a pass from Allie Taylor to put UCSD back up by two at the 2:13 mark.
The Otters converted a penalty shot to make it 10-9 and had a pair of opportunities to even the score. After a blocked shot from Biehle, Smart surged ahead of the pack on a counter, but Taylor came out of her cage to flick the ball away. The Otters killed another possession by the Tritons, but Katie Sowell's last-second skip shot was parried away by Taylor as time expired.
"It was a concern being down 1-0. With Smart on that team, we have our hands full. She's one of the best players in this conference and she showed it today. She came to play and she did not want her team to lose. I give her all the credit in the world," said Kreutzkamp.
Smart led all scorers with seven goals on the day, with three coming in the first and fourth quarters.
Lizotte registered three goals for the Tritons, while Kirsten Bates and Bartow followed with two goals apiece. Taylor made 11 saves for UCSD.
LMU made easy work of No. 8-seed Colorado State in the following game, using a strong contingent of its second-string players to ice a 13-5 victory. The Lions come into Sunday's championship game at a perfect 12-0 in conference play this year.
LMU has won eight of the previous 11 WWPA titles dating back to 2011. Last season, the Tritons upset the Lions 13-11 in Santa Clara to take home UCSD's first WWPA crown. LMU topped UCSD 13-10 in the 2010 championship game.
In the only other meeting between the teams this season, LMU downed UCSD 15-7 on March 10 in Los Angeles.