Water polo loses to USC in NCAA final

Captain Scott Davidson aims for a shot in Saturday's 9-8 double overtime semifinal victory over Loyola Marymount. The victory catapulted the Bruins into Sunday's NCAA Championship final, where they lost 7-6 to the USC Trojans.

Captain Scott Davidson aims for a shot in Saturday's 9-8 double overtime semifinal victory over Loyola Marymount. The victory catapulted the Bruins into Sunday's NCAA Championship final, where they lost 7-6 to the USC Trojans. Neha Uberoi, The Daily Princetonian

PRINCETON, N.J. “”mdash; The heavy snowfall outside of Princeton’s DeNunzio Pool enclosed the NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championships in a cold shower of white, but the action inside remained plenty heated.

A day after going into overtime to beat Loyola Marymount in the national semifinals, the UCLA Bruins dropped an intense 7-6 heartbreaker to their archrival USC for the Trojans’ second consecutive title.

“Going into this was nerve-racking, it got all our hearts pounding,” UCLA junior attacker Ben Hohl said. “We knew there would be adversity, we knew that to win the national championship we would have to deal with adversity. Last night we were able to do that, unfortunately tonight we were not.”

After getting a critical defensive stop late, the Bruins got the ball back with 15 seconds and a chance to tie the game, but were unable to get a quality shot and lost to the Trojans for the third time this season.

The match had no shortage of controversy; a third-quarter shot by UCLA’s Cullen Hennessy that postgame video confirmed crossed the goal line was not ruled a goal during the game. Despite vociferous protests by the Bruins ““ UCLA coach Adam Wright said he thought the ball was “clearly in” after the match ““ the play was not reviewed or discussed.

The two rivals entered the match with polar opposite levels of championship experience: USC was looking to send its formidable senior class off with a back-to-back title, while UCLA did not have any players who had ever played for the championship.

That experience difference manifested itself in the early going. The Trojans jumped out to a three-goal lead in the first quarter before the Bruins were able to calm the storm. A goal by the Bruins’ Griffin White as time expired in the first half cut the deficit to 4-3 heading into the intermission.

“We came out a little bit nervous, none of us had been there before,” Hohl said. “We didn’t stick to our fundamentals. One of the goals that we always say before the game is no counter goals, and they came out in the first quarter and had three counter goals.”

Despite getting a number of opportunities, particularly with the man advantage, UCLA was never able to even the match. USC built leads of 6-3 and 7-5 on the strength of its 2-meter game and was able to hold off Bruin comebacks each time.

“We had our opportunities the whole way,” Hohl said. “We kept coming back, made it a one-goal game, had opportunities to tie it, 6-on-5 opportunities to tie it, it just didn’t go our way.”

USC senior Jordan Thompson, who was later named Tournament MVP, scored in the fourth quarter when he flipped a no-look shot over his head and past UCLA goalkeeper Chay Lapin from in close.

The Bruins got three goals from Hohl, but senior captain Scott Davidson was held scoreless by the Trojans a day after registering five goals in the win over Loyola Marymount.

After the early Trojan barrage, UCLA shut down the Trojan counterattack and transition game. The bulk of the USC offense was run through the dominant inside duo of Thompson and fellow senior J.W. Krumpholz.

The win represents a rewarding end to the career of the USC seniors, many of whom have played together since the early 2000s.

“Every championship is unique, and this one is the sweetest,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said. “This one is absolutely the sweetest, because this group of guys that has been so special for us has been the best group we’ve ever had.”

In the end, Wright acknowledged the quality of his opponents, although he was proud of the fact that his squad was in it until the very end.

“I’ve said all along that ‘SC would be the favorite, they played great,” he said. “But our guys fought back the whole way, and we had a chance at the end of the game to tie the game.”

“They came out and played a really good game,” Hohl said. “I thought we played well too, but they were able to pull it out.”

For the Trojans, the win meant the culmination of a stellar run in which the program established itself unquestionably as the nation’s best.

“I’m going to savor this one for a long time,” Vavic said. “You live for this moment, you train hard for this moment, you spend all these hours of preparation, you don’t eat, you don’t sleep. This relieves all that. It’s going to be a long, joyous winter and summer.”

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