The Bruins are returning to the NCAA title game.
No. 1 UCLA men’s water polo (20-4, 1-2 MPSF) defeated No. 5 Pacific (21-6, 5-0 GCC) 11-9 in the NCAA semifinal on Saturday. The win advances the Bruins to the championship game on Sunday, where they will play No. 3 USC (27-3, 1-2 MPSF), which defeated No. 2 California (20-4, 2-1) 12-11 in the other semifinal.
UCLA won both of their previous matchups against the Tigers this year, and have not lost to them since 2013. The loss eliminates the Tigers from the tournament, which was their first as automatic qualifiers from the Golden Coast Conference.
The Bruins jumped out to an early 2-0 lead with goals from senior attacker Jack Grover and freshman attacker Nicolas Saveljic. However, the Tigers clawed their way back, scoring three times before the end of the quarter to take a 3-2 lead into the second period.
UCLA last played almost two weeks ago, and coach Adam Wright thinks the time off may have led to the slow start.
“It took us a little bit,” Wright said. “We got off to a good start and then we kind of went backwards, but in the end I think it’s better for the athletes to get a little more of a break.”
With just under four minutes gone by in the second period, senior utility Alex Roelse tied the score at three, with senior attacker Max Irving scoring another soon after. Saveljic also scored his second goal of the half, extending the lead to 5-3 entering the break.
The seniors, playing in their final NCAA Tournament, and the freshmen, playing their first, led the scoring for the Bruins, accounting for 10 of 11 goals. Saveljic ended with a hat-trick, while Irving, Roelse and Grover all scored twice.
Saveljic, despite posting three goals in his first career tournament game, said he did not expect the intensity of the crowd, and felt a bit nervous.
“There was a lot of people following this sport,” Saveljic said. “I didn’t expect that so it’s amazing. I’m always nervous before big games.”
In the final game of their careers, the Bruin seniors will have a chance to capture their third title in four years. However, Irving is focused on the opportunity at hand, and has not had a chance to process that these games will be his last in the blue and gold.
“I’m focused on the opponents we’re going to face and trying to maximize recovery right now,” Irving said. “Just trying to stick to the things that have been making us successful to this point. I’ll definitely have some time after it’s all said and done to think back and reflect, but right now I’m trying to focus and just be present.”
The Bruins have a record of 2-1 against the Trojans this season. Wright said he knows the final will not be an easy victory to claim.
“If we all knew that we had one game to play to be the best team in the country, I think anybody would’ve taken that,” Wright said. “But we’ve got to be better tomorrow than we were today.”
UCLA will play in the tournament final Sunday afternoon at 3 p.m.