LONG BEACH — Water polo can be an inexact science, but when you play defense like the UC Irvine women's team, the math usually adds up in your favor.
The win propelled the No. 6-ranked Anteaters (23-7) into Sunday's championship game against No, 9-ranked Cal State Northridge. The winner earns an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. The loser, will almost surely see its season end.
UCI, which has won five straight, 12 of its last 13, and has not lost in 11 contests against Big West rivals this season, entered the postseason looking like a solid bet to collect one of four at-large berths into the expanded 10-team NCAA Tournament, May 9-11 at USC.
But with No. 4-ranked Arizona State upsetting No. 2-ranked USC in the quarterfinals of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament on Friday, the Sun Devils' at-large resume trumps that of UCI, 'Eaters' Coach Dan Klatt said. That means that the four NCAA at-large berths are almost certainly to go to either top-ranked Stanford, USC, No. 3-ranked UCLA, Cal, which shares the No. 4 ranking, or ASU, with one of them also claiming the automatic berth that goes to the MPSF Tournament winner.
So perhaps it was added pressure, or maybe the consistently gusting wind that helped lead to some inexact shooting by the Anteaters early in Saturday's contest.
UCI, which missed its first 15 shots, had one-third of its 18 first-half shots carom off either one goal post or the crossbar. Two other UCI shots sailed either high or wide in the first half, which ended in a 1-1 deadlock.
Sophomore Emily Carson finally put UCI on the scoreboard with 1:41 left before halftime.
In all, UCI fired six shots off the crossbar and four more off a goal post, while seven of the 29 total shots went either high or wide of the cage. Four more were either deflected or blocked and nine were saved by 49ers goalie Kelly Ringel.
UCI goalie Jillian Yocum made seven saves, while senior Hannah Croghan spearheaded an oppressive defense with two field blocks and one of the 'Eaters' six steals.
Croghan also led UCI scorers with a pair of goals, the first coming with nearly a minute gone in the third quarter that gave UCI its first lead, 2-1. Her 154 career goals ranks No. 4 in UCI annals.
After Long Beach State evened it with 2:53 left in the third period, sophomore Cambria Shockley skipped in a shot 20 seconds later for UCI's second and final power-play goal.
UCI led, 3-2, going into the final period and blanked the 49ers for the final 10:53, despite playing without its best defensive player, Klatt said, as senior Hillary Estrada played sparingly after picking up two fouls early, then was whistled for her third foul that prompted disqualification quickly after returning to action in the fourth quarter.
It was the fewest goals scored all season by the 49ers (19-11), the fewest in their last 59 games since a 9-1 loss to USC last season.
It marked the fourth time this season that UCI allowed two or fewer goals.
A pivotal moment came with 7:08 left in the final quarter, when Long Beach State senior Coriann Snyder fired a penalty shot off the right post with a chance to knot things at 3-3.
"That was huge," Klatt said of the missed penalty shot. "If that goes in, its a different game."
The 49ers missed another opportunity late in the third period, when wide-open senior Hillary Vaselik tipped a pass off the crossbar from about three meters in front of the cage.
"It wasn't a great shooting day for us," Klatt said. "But it was one of those days when if you play solid enough defense, you can still come out on top. [The 49ers] did a good job of moving on our best shooters and they had some field blocks. I think we also struggled shooting against the wind in the first half. It doesn't take much to throw a shot off, and then I think we may have become a little hesitant with our shots. I also think we were flat early."
Croghan got behind the defense for an easy counterattack goal with 2:33 left and senior Jessy Cardey's off-speed shot with 1:29 left finalized the scoring.
It was the 19th career goal for Cardey in the Big West tournament, moving her in a tie for the all-time lead. The goal also gave Cardey 216 in her UCI career, just one behind all-time leader Robyn Kaake.
UCI, which has won the last four Big West regular-season titles, is making its sixth consecutive trip to the conference tournament title game.