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No. 6 Cal catches Los Angeles blues in back-to-back losses to No. 2 UCLA

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MARCH 17, 2021

Is it worse to lose in a blowout or a close game?

That question has long been debated among athletes and sports fans. This past weekend, Cal experienced both sides of the debate. Back-to-back matches in Westwood ended with the speakers of Spieker Aquatics Center — not to be confused with the Spieker Aquatics Complex in Berkeley — blasting Randy Newman’s “I Love L.A.” to celebrate Bruins’ victories. The pair of losses marked the Bears’ first and second of the season.

The blowout came first as Cal lost 5-11 last Friday. The offense got off to a good start, propelled by senior Brigit Mulder’s two first-half goals. She went on to complete the hat trick in the fourth period. Sophomore Cecily Turner and freshman Reagan Whitney both pitched in a goal apiece in the first half.

However, the Bears’ offense gradually sputtered out. Cal had trouble passing into the post, and 14 of the team’s pass attempts were stolen. This meant that the blue and gold were often forced into settling for long, contested shots, especially in the second half. Meanwhile, UCLA’s attack was clicking on all cylinders. This led to a drastic difference in shooting efficiency between the two squads. The Bruins shot 40.7%, while the Bears only converted on 17.2% of their attempts.

Plenty of players contributed to the Bruins’ win, but perhaps none more than junior attacker Val Ayala. Ayala contributed on both ends, with a goal, two assists and a whopping five steals. Another highlight performance came from freshman attacker Malia Allen, who finished with two goals and an assist.

After the loss, the Bears jumped right back into the water to swim additional laps while the Bruins left the aquatic center. And whether it was from that extra conditioning, strategic adjustments or added determination, Cal seemed ready to get revenge the next day.

On Saturday, the Bears came firing out the gate. They hustled down the pool in transition and grinded their way to extra rebounds and blocks. There was even extra energy coming from the bench, as the entire team began shouting “Go Bears” at every possible moment.

After taking a 3-2 lead and momentum into the start of the second period, Cal seemed in prime position to run away with the game. The team’s showing was headlined by a four-point performance from junior Elli Protopapas and three-point games from Mulder and sophomore Shea Salvino. But the Bruins never let the game get out of their paws. They kept pace with the Bears, leading to an 8-8 stalemate going into the waning minutes of the match. As both teams struggled to put the ball in the net, it became clear that the next goal would likely clinch the match.

With a little more than a minute left, UCLA held possession. Cal’s defense didn’t allow any entry passes and contested everything — this forced Ayala to fire up an errant shot that hit the post. For a split second, it appeared as if the Bears had stifled the opposing attack.

But it wasn’t meant to be. The ball bounced off the goal post and straight into the arms of the Bruins’ senior attacker Lexi Liebowitz, who was gifted a point-blank, wide-open look. She fired it into the back of the cage, sinking Cal’s hopes. The Bears couldn’t score on their final possession, and the final buzzer marked a heartbreaking loss. After another brutal finish, Cal was left swimming laps while UCLA posed for a victory photo outside of the pool.

Things won’t get any easier next week — the Bears are set to play a doubleheader against the only team ranked ahead of the Bruins: No. 1 USC. However, despite a crushing weekend, there is reason to be hopeful. The improvement between Friday and Saturday was palpable, as Cal grew from a blowout loss to a game that easily could have gone the other way. And if they can continue to exude that level of improvement when they return to Berkeley to take on the Trojans, the Bears should be able to give any team in the country a run for its money.

Casey Grae covers women’s water polo and writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].
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MARCH 17, 2021


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