For the past month, the Stanford women's water polo team has cruised to four easy victories by the combined score of 70-20. Clearly, the Cardinal needed a test before heading into the postseason.
That's exactly what No. 2-ranked Stanford got Saturday with its 8-7 victory over No. 1 UCLA at Avery Aquatic Center.
"This was the first time since that USC game," Stanford coach John Tanner said of his team's 12-9 overtime win over the Trojans on March 8. "This was our first test since then."
Stanford had been cruising, and shaking off the rust following finals, before taking on the Bruins for the third time this season. The Cardinal (4-0, 19-1) now holds a 2-1 series edge plus control of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation race.
UCLA which had won 12 straight since losing to Cardinal in the title game of the Stanford Invitational on Feb. 1, dropped to 20-2 and 4-1 in league play.
Should Stanford defeat visiting Cal State Bakersfield on Sunday (noon) in the team's final regular-season home match, it will earn the top seed for the upcoming MPSF Tournament.
"I don't think anything, at this point, can keep us out of the NCAA Tournament," said Tanner, whose team is the defending champion.
At this point in the season, it's just a matter of fine-tuning. The Cardinal looked solid early with a 3-0 lead before UCLA closed to 4-3. Stanford pulled away again at 7-4 and 8-5, before the Bruins rallied again to within 8-7 with 3:13 left to play.
"I was very happy with the way we responded when they closed," Tanner said of the Bruins. "I liked our composure, our patience."
But, Tanner didn't like what happened after his team grabbed an 8-5 lead on Jordan Raney's goal with 5:10 left to play.
"To be up three with the ball, with under five minutes to play . . . " Tanner said, perhaps mentally scratching his head. "I don't think we were coordinated defensively."
Thus, there is work left to do, even for a team that will take over the nation's No. 1 position when the next poll is released.
Stanford's victory, meanwhile, the program's 37th straight regular-season conference victory and its 25th straight at home.
"Being at home, the atmosphere surrounding today and what the stakes were . . . I think we really were excited about this game," said senior driver Kiley Neushul, who had two goals as did her sister, Jamie. "That's the most people I've seen at one of our games. It was really fun to have a huge home crowd and a great atmosphere.
"Our coach prepared us well and we prepared each other well. These past few weeks have been a good test for our team and I think we responded, (but) there's a lot for us to work on still and I'm sure UCLA feels the same way."
The Cardinal definitely responded to a Bruin challenge heading into the fourth quarter. UCLA's Emily Donohoe scored what seemed to be a deflating goal with just one second on the clock in the third to pull her team within one, 5-4.
But Stanford answered with three goals in the first 2:50 of the fourth quarter to extend its edge to 8-5 with 5:10 left. Defense won the day in the end, as the Cardinal clamped down and held UCLA scoreless over the final 3:13 after scores from Rachel Fattal (4:17) and Charlotte Pratt (3:13) brought the Bruins back within one (8-7).
"We don't spend a lot of time worrying about the scoreboard, but worrying about what we need to do next," Tanner said of the message to his team in between the third and fourth quarters. "We talked about what we wanted to do on the first couple of possessions, then revisited what we were aiming to do on 6-on-5 and 5-on-6 and then we turned them loose. I have a lot of confidence in this team and their ability to lead from the water. They spend a lot of focus time getting ready for just that kind of situation and are fully prepared."
Jamie Neushul, sophomore, led the charge in that decisive fourth-quarter run, firing home her first of the day at 7:35 and then racing down the pool to beat Sami Hill and convert for the Cardinal on the break at 5:49.
Raney added her 17th of the season with a rocket to the near post past Hill with 5:10 to go to give Stanford the breathing room it needed before the Bruins rallied.
UCLA was able to draw an exclusion with just 39 seconds left to give the Bruins their fifth 6-on-5 opportunity, but the Cardinal defense held, took over possession and ran out the clock.
Gabby Stone made five saves and Stanford's defense limited UCLA to just 1-of-5 in its 6-on-5 chances.
Stanford will salute its three seniors -- Kiley Neushul, Emily Dorst and Ashley Grossman -- before Sunday's game with Cal State Bakersfield. The seniors are 99-7 in their careers with two national titles.
Among the large crowd was Stanford Athletic Director Bernard Muir, head football coach David Shaw, head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer and her associate head coach Amy Tucker.
(John V Cantalupi of Stanford's Sports Information Department contributed)