Kiley Neushul has had more than her share of big games before — in every level of play, from high school to the U.S. National Team. But through the four years of her storied collegiate career, there was one thing that she couldn’t manage to check off:
“Honestly, I’ve never had a good NCAA tournament. Ever,” Neushul said.
Until Sunday, at least.
In the final game of her collegiate career, Neushul emptied her tank and gave Stanford a monumental performance — 5 goals, 5 steals and winning all four sprints — to push the team to the national title. She was the only Stanford player to score in the second half and almost singlehandedly kept the Cardinal neck-and-neck with UCLA on the scoreboard throughout a hard-fought matchup.
“I think just the fact that we were determined to win really had me going, and I’ve never felt that good in a game,” she said. “Personally, just shooting, ever. I’ve never felt that good.”
Even the senior herself doesn’t know where this outburst came from. But when the team was deciding which player was going to take the penalty shot with 11 seconds left and the game on the line, it was clear who that shot was going to belong to.
“You get kind of hot during a game and you look at your teammates and they’re like ‘you got it, you got it,’” she said. “I knew — I looked around at my teammates and at first I was like, ‘Honestly, I’ve scored too many.’ Not to brag or anything, but I don’t score that much usually in a game.”
In fact, her 5 goals in Sunday’s matchup matched her previous high in an NCAA tournament, as she scored 5 goals last year combined against Indiana, Cal and UCLA en route to a national championship.
She credited her success to having had a “hot hand” and being really in the zone and rising to meet the occasion, but teammate and tournament MVP Maggie Steffens disagreed that it was just a lucky sequence of events that enabled Neushul to have such a big day.
“Kiley was saying she had a hot hand, but I honestly don’t really believe in hot hands,” Steffens said. “I think if you want it, it’s going to get done. I think both of them had that extra little fire in them that gave them that hot hand.
“I’m not going to say it’s some lucky thing that Kiley scored 5 and Ashley scored 2 — it was that they wanted it bad,” Steffens added. “I think that’s what a hot hand is — you’ve put in the preparation, you’ve put in the routine, and when you get in there and you want something so bad, you put it in the net.”
As badly as seniors Neushul and Ashley Grossman wanted it tonight (they combined for all seven of Stanford’s goals), their teammates arguably wanted it more — to make sure that their seniors wouldn’t leave Avery Aquatic Center empty-handed.
“I know personally, I was fighting for them,” Steffens said. “I was fighting for this team. I kept on putting their faces in the back of my mind. I was not letting them lose this game. There was no way we would let them walk away without the national championship.”
With Neushul’s frenzied drive and the unwavering fire of her teammates all coming together in the pool, Stanford’s collective push was too much for UCLA to overcome, and it was a truly special swan song for Neushul and Stanford women’s water polo’s class of 2015.
“It felt like it was just an uphill battle just to stay even throughout — my sense was that we were not going to be denied,” said head coach John Tanner.
It’s certainly an evening that Neushul won’t soon forget.
“I think I’ll ride this cloud — I don’t have another NCAA — so forever, right?”
Contact Do-Hyoung Park at dpark027 ‘at’ stanford.edu.