As the regular season winds down and playoffs loom, the UCLA men’s water polo team has one more enormous test on their schedule: a rubber match with USC.
On Saturday night at Spieker Aquatics Center, the Bruins will host their cross-town rivals in the third meeting of the season between the two top-five teams, the second-to-last regular season game of the year for the Bruins.
No. 4 UCLA (18-5, 4-2 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation) defeated the No. 1 Trojans (19-1, 4-0) 5-4 in the semifinals of the NorCal Tournament back on Sept. 20. Since that match, USC has tallied up 14 consecutive wins, including a 9-8 victory over the Bruins in the semifinals of the UCI Invitational on Oct. 11. UCLA’s victory in September was its first in nearly two years over its rivals, and that could give the underdog Bruins an added confidence boost this time around.
“Having beaten them definitely helps us from a mental perspective,” UCLA coach Adam Wright said. “It was something we hadn’t done for a while, so getting that win was big for our confidence as a team.”
While both previous games were close as can be, each unfolded in a different fashion. UCLA’s win came in a defensive struggle in which the Bruins held the Trojans scoreless in the final quarter. In USC’s victory, the Trojans piled up four goals in the first quarter, and the game took on a more offensive tone. For the Bruins, reverting back to the form they displayed in the first meeting will be critical.
“Our defense will be the key on Saturday,” UCLA freshman utilityman Josh Samuels said. “We held them to four goals when we beat them, but they put up nine when they beat us. It’s important that we hold them down if we want to win again.”
Defense has been the Bruins’ calling card all season, and they feel that if they can execute effectively at the end of the pool, they will be tough to defeat.
“If we hold a team under six goals we think we have a pretty good chance at beating anybody,” Wright said.
One factor that could manifest itself for the first time this season is home-pool advantage: Each of the previous two matches occurred at a neutral site during tournament play, and Saturday’s showdown should draw a large crowd of blue-and-gold clad supporters to Spieker Aquatics Center, where the Bruins are 3-1 this season.
“It’s huge that we get a chance to play them at home this time,” Samuels said. “We’re looking to create a consistent winning atmosphere at Spieker, and hopefully that can carry over and help us get a victory over USC.”
While the two teams will surely be familiar with each other’s personnel and style of play, it has been nearly a month since the squads last saw each other and the intensity is bound to be elevated.
“They’re going to be sharper than when we played them earlier, but we’ll be sharper, too,” Wright said. “This one could very well come down to one or two goals again. It should be a very good game.”