ORLANDO, Fla. -- This all might have been easier with Mallory Pugh.
UCLA might not have needed 110 minutes of tension and muscle cramps. It might not have needed a freshman who hadn't played in more than a month -- including Friday's 110 minutes -- to convert a penalty kick to settle a shootout in the College Cup. But it happened all the same.
UCLA never played an official game with Pugh, the wunderkind who committed to the Pac-12 school out of high school but turned pro instead this past spring. Yet after the Bruins survived a 0-0 stalemate against Duke through 90 minutes of regulation and 20 more minutes of overtime and then prevailed on freshman Marley Canales' conversion in a penalty shootout, the Bruins will play a game Sunday with the opportunity to win their second national championship.
Do you think they mind if it took a little extra work to get there? Not likely.
Soccer fans routinely debate whether a final score fairly depicts the game that produced it. But in the case of the College Cup semifinals, the combined outcomes told an accurate story of the night. Only one team won a game, at least officially, and Stanford's 2-0 win against South Carolina was a study in excellence. But even if UCLA only gets official credit for a draw, it made its point loud and clear by surviving. Pugh has a bright future on the soccer field. So do the Bruins.
It was a point UCLA coach Amanda Cromwell said she made to Pugh when the player was charting her course this past spring.
How are you going to feel when we're in a national championship game and you're not playing?
It worked a few years earlier on Ally Courtnall, a two-sport star who nearly gave up soccer to focus on track but returned to help UCLA win its first national title. It didn't work on Pugh.
But it will be an interesting question to ponder around noon on Sunday.
Duke reached a national championship game in 2015 on the counterattack, allowing opponents a healthy share of the ball and then launching fast-moving, full-field forays in response. That wasn't as much the style that carried them to an ACC title and a No. 1 seed this season, but there was a throwback feel to the first half of the semifinal against the Bruins. Pressing hard and high, UCLA had more of the ball through the first half and the opening stages of the second half.
Duke had chances -- Imani Dorsey slid one particularly tempting shot just wide of the post in the opening 20 minutes -- but the Bruins had the ball and more of the momentum. Only later in the second half, as Duke found some of the patience missing early, did the play shift from UCLA attacking and Duke countering to both teams building attack.
Still, with UCLA's Jessie Fleming and Duke's Rebecca Quinn, teammates for Canada, to some degree neutralizing each other, it was a game of missed opportunities. Sometimes shots were blocked by selfless defending -- UCLA's Kaiya McCullough and Zoey Goralski were both active on that front. But just as often, a touch was a shade too heavy or a shot was pulled over the frame.
"I just felt like I wasn't doing the right things to get myself in a better position to score," Dorsey said. "Or I wasn't getting a good enough shot off. It was more, I felt like, me than their defense."
She wasn't being entirely fair to herself on a night when she came closer than anyone on the field to settling things before the shootout, but the sentiment sums up how a lot of players probably felt. And as well as UCLA moved the ball, it was difficult not to wonder what a world-class offensive player might have provided. For those watching from afar, at least.
"That was a blow. When you look at it, what she would bring to the table is undeniable," Cromwell said of Pugh's departure this spring. "It's a talented player, someone that is very dynamic and could help in the attack in many ways. You look at it, and you throw her into the mix on this team and how many more goals would we score? I'm sure that's what the outside group might be thinking, but we never looked at it that way.
"Now we have Anika Rodriguez stepping up in tremendous ways, [Ashley Sanchez and Hailie Mace are thriving]. I think it allowed other players to flourish and come into their own."
Those players were the backbone of a team that entered Friday with 19 wins and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament that perhaps should have been a No. 1 seed. But the list also includes Canales, whose limited minutes are their own testament to just how healthy the UCLA program remains. A former teammate of Pugh's on youth teams, Canales has played for a variety of U.S. youth national teams. She is a top prospect. She just hasn't cracked UCLA's rotation yet.
Except on penalty kicks, which become a point of emphasis in the postseason. So just as UCLA also called on Julia Hernandez, who converted in the shootout despite not playing in the game, it turned to Canales in the final round.
"She's been in the top five basically since the postseason started," Cromwell said. "She's just been automatic and just has so much confidence. That's really hard. I can't say how hard that is to do, coming in cold off the bench and being the fifth kicker and putting the team on your shoulders."
Canales said she didn't let her mind stray too far ahead as overtime progressed, confident that the Bruins would find a way to unlock the Blue Devils and score a goal. When they didn't find that goal, and after UCLA goalkeeper Teagan Micah saved Duke's fifth attempt in the shootout, Canales stepped to the spot and sent the Bruins through to the final.
"I was approaching the ball and I could see her moving right, left, right, left, and for a quick second I was like 'Oh shoot,' " Canales said. "But I knew that Coach Amanda and the rest of our staff told me to trust the side that you're always going to. And I've been hitting it well to that side for a lot of the season. So I knew I had to hit it to that side. I tried to hit it well and whatever happens, happens."
Florida is a long way to come for a conference title game, but now the Bruins get a rematch against the Cardinal team that beat them 1-0 in the regular season. UCLA seemed excited about that opportunity, even if others might have viewed it as more of a sentence than a prize.
The nation's most prolific offense this season, by almost a goal per game more than any other team in the country, Stanford looked the part against South Carolina in the opening semifinal.
While the Gamecocks hadn't given up a goal through the first four rounds of the NCAA tournament, and hadn't given up a first-half goal in nearly two months, Stanford needed a little more than nine minutes to turn commanding possession into a lead as Jordan DiBiasi headed home a Tegan McGrady free kick. DiBiasi was the finisher again in the 26th minute, a deflected shot beating the goalkeeper from near the penalty spot. But that was the final act in a sequence that included almost a dozen consecutive completed passes by the Cardinal.
"Without a doubt, Stanford is the best team we faced all season," South Carolina defender Grace Fisk said. "Their offense was smooth, fluid. They knew positions, where they should be. ... They caused us problems, they pulled us apart."
Now the Bruins get what none of Stanford's other victims enjoyed, a second look at the Cardinal. They earned that second chance over five rounds -- five rounds of the tournament, five rounds of a shootout.
It was just a passing reference, here and gone in the blink of an eye, but it offered no end of opportunity to daydream. A day before her team played Duke, Cromwell told a story about an unofficial spring game the Bruins played against the Seattle Reign of the National Women's Soccer League. She mentioned Pugh, still then part of the Bruins' roster and able to play.
What might Sunday look like with national team teammates Pugh and Andi Sullivan squaring off? We'll never know. But those who remain for UCLA will know what it's like to play for a title.
"They have this confidence of whatever my role is, I'm going to do it well," Cromwell said. "That's what this team embraced. No matter who was on the roster, they were going to fulfill their role."