NCAA Women's Water Polo Championships: UCLA advances to finals

UCLA and Stanford won their semifinal matches Saturday at the 2017 NCAA Women's Water Polo Championships in Indianapolis, setting up an all-Pac-12 final between the Bruins and Cardinal on Sunday. This will be the third time in the last four years that Stanford and UCLA will play for the national title.

NCAA Semifinal: No. 2 Seed Stanford 11, No. 3 Seed USC 10

Stanford

Two-time Olympic MVP and two-time FINA Women's Water Polo Athlete of the Year Maggie Steffens scored four goals and tallied two assists to lead Stanford to an 11-10 triumph over USC, as the Cardinal defeated the Trojans for the third time this season and landed a spot in the national championship game for the eighth consecutive season.

Stanford two-meter defender Jordan Raney scored both of her goals in the fourth quarter, including the game-winner, as the Cardinal overcame a 9-8 deficit to begin the last period and also trailed 10-9 with 4:34 remaining when Stephania Haralabidis, who scored the game-winning goal from near-mid-tank to defeat the Cardinal in last year's national championship game, rattled the cage to put USC back in front.

On the ensuing trip down the pool, Steffens lit the lamp to even the score at 10-10 with 4:20 remaining, and Raney scored the game-winner on a power-play strike at the 3:46 mark off a feed from Steffens. Stanford's defense took hold from there, with Gabby Stone making two key saves late and her teammates in front of her not allowing the Trojans to get off a shot on their final possession.

The tightly-contested affair saw only one two-goal lead all game when Brianna Daboub scored to give USC an 8-6 edge nearly three minutes into the third quarter. Stanford quickly responded with a goal from lefty Madison Berggren, and the game was played within a one-goal difference the rest of the way.

Stanford took a 5-4 lead after one quarter, with eight of the first-period goals coming within a span of 3:25, before USC got a tally from freshman sensation Maud Megens to tie it up at 6-6 heading into halftime.

Daboub led the Trojans with three goals, while Stephania Haralabidis and Megens each scored two.

Stanford will now go for its fifth national championship in seven years when it plays UCLA on Sunday. The Cardinal defeated the Bruins in the finals in 2014 and 2015.

UCLA

NCAA Semifinal: No. 1 Seed UCLA 14, California 11

It was a high-scoring affair in the first semifinal of the day with UCLA powering past the Golden Bears 14-11 to advance to its third NCAA title game in four years. 

Olympic gold medalist Maddie Musselman led the Bruins with four goals, providing the clincher late in the fourth quarter. Fellow Olympic and Bruin teammate Rachel Fattal and Mackenzie Barr each had a hat trick for the Bruins, while Anna Illes scored three goals to lead the Golden Bears.

The Bruins connected on tough-angle shots and had success with multiple players posting up at two meters, getting a goal in set from a posted-up Barr and another on a perfectly-placed shot from the perimeter by Alys Williams on consecutive possessions to put the Bruins up 8-4 midway through the second quarter. UCLA threatened to extend the lead further, but Cal answered with some timely goals from Stephanie Mutafyan and Illes to cut the Bruin edge to 9-6 at halftime.

[Related: 2017 NCAA Women's Water Polo Championships bracket (NCAA.com)]

The lead ping-ponged between three and four for the Bruins all through the third period, with the Golden Bears usually having a quick response whenever UCLA pushed the lead out to four goals. However, Cal's depth took a hit late in the third when Canadian National Team member Emma Wright picked up her third personal foul, therefore excluding her for the remainder of the game. UCLA's Fattal scored on the ensuing power play to put the Bruins up 13-9, but Hungarian National Teamer and two-time Olympian Dora Antal scored on a skip shot beyond five meters at the horn to cut UCLA's lead to 13-10 heading into the fourth.

The game took a turn for the defensive in the final frame, with the Bruins and Bears holding each other scoreless for the first five minutes of the period. However, UCLA managed to put the game away when Musselman stole an outlet pass from Cal goalie Madeline Trabucco, drew an exclusion in transition and scored on a one-on-none with 2:19 remaining to give UCLA a 14-10 lead.

The semifinal had "high scoring" written all over it from the beginning, as goals were scored on the first three possessions and Bronte Halligan's powerful blast from the perimeter gave UCLA a 5-3 lead after one quarter. Cal cut it to 4-3 prior to that on goals from Antal and center Emily Loughlin, but the Golden Bears never got closer the rest of the way.

Cal was able to hang tough thanks to its strong power play, as the Golden Bears were 5-for-6 on the 6-on-5 in the first half and finished the game 7-for-11 in that department. Unfortunately for Cal, a couple of the team's power-play miscues came when it had opportunities to cut the deficit to two goals in the second half. Meanwhile, UCLA was 6-for-10 on the power play.

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