SANTA BARBARA, Calif. – Facing No. 8 UC Irvine in its Big West Conference opener on a sunny, breezy Saturday in Santa Barbara, the No. 10 UCSB women's water polo team erased a 3-0 first half deficit and eventually came away with a 6-5 win that went down to the final possession.
After claiming their third straight win to open the month of March, the Gauchos improve to 16-5 overall and 1-0 in conference. With their first loss to the Gauchos in their last five matches, the Anteaters fall to 12-7 overall, 0-1 Big West.
"We shifted to just defensively getting stops and that fueled our counter-attack," said head coach Serela Kay. "We had some fast break looks, and even a few of them didn't go, but that just continued our rhythm into the front court and we put away some looks when we needed them."
Saturday's Big West opener marked the third time already this season that the two teams have faced each other. UCI had UCSB's number last month, coming out on top in both meetings despite allowing the Gauchos to get out to a pair of fast starts.
This time, it was the Anteaters who came out firing, as they looked unstoppable in the early-going with three unanswered goals through four and a half minutes. The Gaucho offense would wake up midway through the second quarter, as a goal by senior Kate Pipkin kickstarted a 3-1 UCSB run to end the half.
With just under three minutes left before the break, a pair of Gaucho freshmen hooked up for a power play goal, as Caitlyn Snyder found Kelly Murphy to make it 4-2 in favor of UCI. Just 70 seconds later, junior Sarah Snyder would punctuate the half with her first goal of the day off an assist by senior Shannon Moran, bringing UCSB within a goal at 4-3.
In what was a tightly contested second half, goalkeeper Kenzi Snyder put on an absolute show, stifling the Anteaters at every turn as she racked up a season-high 13 saves while holding the visitors to just one second half goal. The junior from Santa Ana, Calif. helped keep UCSB ahead down the stretch, stuffing a penalty along with several other quality chances from near point blank range.
Fortunately for the Gauchos, their offense would get the job done as well. Sophomore attacker Dara Bleiberg fired in an equalizer from range at the 4:22 mark of the third quarter off a pass from sophomore Mollie Simmons, tying things at 4-4. With momentum on UCSB's side, Pipkin would put the Gauchos ahead with a goal less than two minutes later, making it 5-4.
"We had a few players step up that we normally don't see. It's nice to see goals coming from all over the place, getting different looks for different players. Kelly Murphy and Dara Bleiberg put those two six-on-five goals away and that really made a difference," Kay said. "It just shows you how valuable it is to have a bench, and everybody came to play today on our team."
As both defenses tightened up in the fourth, a spectacular play between Pipkin and Sarah Snyder – UCSB's top producers on offense all season long – would give the Gauchos the cushion they needed. Pipkin fed a perfectly placed lob pass over the top in to Snyder, who had spun away from her defender before calmly beating the keeper from inside five meters to double UCSB's lead, 6-4.
Irvine wouldn't go away just yet, as a screamer from the left wing by Tara Prentice with 3:53 to go brought the Anteaters back within one goal. However, UCSB's defense would get the job done down the stretch, as Irvine continued to either hit the post or have its shots saved by Kenzi Snyder all the way until the final seconds.
This marks UCSB's first win over UCI since April 30, 2016, when the Gauchos knocked off the Anteaters 7-6 in the Big West Tournament Semifinals at Campus Pool en route to their first ever Big West Championship. Santa Barbara is now 4-4 this season against teams with a higher national ranking.
"The teams in the Big West, every team is competitive and every game this conference season is going to be a game," said Kay. "Today, some of their looks were bars and didn't go in, and ours were going in. It's a good day to be a Gaucho."
The Gauchos won't play another Big West game until March 30 at UC Davis, but they will play three games prior to that. UCSB returns to the pool on March 25 at Cal State Monterey Bay.