In front of a standing-room-only crowd at Spieker Aquatics Center, a pair of elite water polo teams put on a show worthy of their audience.
Top-ranked USC got a tie-breaking goal from Kyle Sterling with 39 seconds left in the match to come away with a 7-6 victory over No. 4 UCLA (18-6, 4-3 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation). The game was a back-and-forth thriller that was tied for most of the third quarter before the Trojans (20-1, 6-0) drew an exclusion penalty on UCLA in the final minute that led to the game-winning goal.
Six-on-five play proved to be critical as each team performed well with the man-advantage. The Bruins converted on four of seven chances, but the Trojans went four for five and executed more effectively in the clutch.
“There’s the game,” UCLA coach Adam Wright said of the 6-on-5 statistics. “In the first half we missed three right in front of the goal. We have to convert the easy ones, and maybe next time in a different situation we’ll get those. We got the chances. The next step is just capitalizing.”
UCLA captain Scott Davidson led a third-quarter salvo that put the Bruins up 6-5 heading into the fourth quarter. After USC went into halftime with a 3-2 lead, the redshirt senior attacker put together a three-goal broadside to give UCLA its first lead of the game. The Trojans would tie things up at 5, but UCLA junior attacker Emilio Vieira scored with six seconds left in the third quarter to give the Bruins a slight edge heading into the final period.
In the first half, USC was able to gain an early 3-1 advantage behind a formidable 6-on-5 attack.
“Defensively our half-court defense was pretty good overall,” UCLA redshirt sophomore attacker Cullen Hennessy said. “Our five-man defense was not where it should have been. They were four for five on 6-on-5, which is unacceptable. That’s where games are won and lost, on the man-advantage, and that showed right there.”
Hennessy converted a 6-on-5 opportunity of his own with 37 seconds to play in the first half to gut the deficit to one heading into intermission.
Even before the game began, the night had a playoff-like feel to it. On a chilly Westwood evening with steam rising from Dirks Pool, fans were turned away from the entrances due to an over-capacity crowd. With spectators lining up in the parking structure along the pathways adjacent to Spieker, and even in the pine trees overlooking the pool, the game had all the intensity of a postseason duel.
“It’s always a scene and always fun when you play USC, especially in a big game,” Hennessy said. “They’re the No. 1 team in the country. We’re playing at home under the lights, and it’s a great atmosphere.”
Despite the close loss, the Bruins were happy with their play and their ability to play the nation’s top team virtually even.
“I thought it was a good match, smart play on both sides,” Wright said. “We missed some easy ones, but overall I was happy with our guys. I mean, it’s UCLA-USC, so of course it was good.”