The No. 6 UC Irvine women’s water polo team’s weekend in the Big West Conference Tournament was drama-packed as they earned an historic victory in their semifinal matchup against UC Davis and were able to fend off a feisty Long Beach State team in the championship game, raising the cup for the sixth time in the last nine years.
After having a bye in the first round via their first place seeding, the ‘Eaters opened up tournament play on day two against the host team UC Davis on Saturday. The fourth-seeded Aggies advanced to the semifinals with their 12-7 quarterfinal win over CSUN and looked to advance to the championship game in their home pool of the Schaal Aquatics Center.
Behind an historic performance by junior Mary Brooks and senior goalkeeper Annika Nelson, the ‘Eaters were able pick up where they left off and extended their program best win streak to 13 with their 14-2 victory.
Brooks tied her career best of six goals in the contest, becoming the Big West Tournament record for most individual goals in a single game. The feat also ties her for second place in the Anteater record books.
In goal, Nelson registered a career-high 15 saves against the Aggies — second in a Big West Tournament game and fifth in UCI program history.
Eight different ‘Eaters scored in the contest, with senior Kelsey Thornton adding a brace to Brooks’s dominant tally.
The ‘Eaters led 5-0 at the half as Brooks scored or assisted on all goals. Brooks had her hat trick before intermission and the ‘Eater defense held the Aggies scoreless. Davis got on the board twice in the third period but gave up a flurry of goals to Irvine, who scored six of their own. UCI scored the fourth period’s lone three goals with Brooks’s record-breaking score starting the tide that sealed the semi-final match for the ‘Eaters and launched them into the title game.
Long Beach State
The ‘Eaters met with a familiar opponent in the tournament final as they faced their Black & Blue rival Long Beach State on Sunday. The third-seeded 49ers earned their spot in the championship game with an upset over second seed Hawai’i, 8-7 in overtime.
The 49ers found themselves in a comfortable position as they took the ‘Eaters all the way into overtime. Long Beach struck first in the first period of extra time to put the pressure back on Irvine’s shoulders, but it was Brooks again who found the back of the cage and leveled the waters.
A scoreless second period of overtime prompted a sudden death scenario in order to crown a champion. Each team had looks at the other’s cage as the crowd in attendance held their breath for each possession. With the sudden death period was coming to an end, Brooks fought to cause a 49er turnover and proceeded to shoot and earn the ‘Eaters a corner. With three ticks left, Brooks found Thornton on the outside, who then lobbed a cross cage shot to beat the Long Beach goalkeeper and end the match with the golden goal and give her team the 8-7 championship win.
Brooks was awarded the tournament MVP for her 10 goals in both matches. Her scoring outburst set a new tournament record.
Nelson once again tied her career high of 15 saves — second most in a Big West game.
With the tournament crown, the ‘Eaters earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis, IN later this month, but will find out their seeding on the selection show May 1.