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Men’s water polo clinches UCLA’s 119th national championship with victory over USC

No. 4 seed UCLA men’s water polo defeated No. 3 seed USC for the third time this season to win the Bruins’ 119th national championship and the program’s 12th overall. (Ariana Fadel/Daily Bruin)

Men’s Water Polo

No. 4 seed UCLA7
No. 3 seed USC6

By Kyle Boal

March 21, 2021 3:38 p.m.

This post was updated April 4 at 10:10 p.m.

The Bruins are national champions once again.

No. 4 seed UCLA men’s water polo (9-7, 5-5 MPSF) dethroned No. 3 seed USC (8-9, 3-7) on Sunday 7-6 to bring trophy No. 119 to Westwood and its first national championship since 2017 and 12th overall. 

It was the seventh meeting between the two programs in the national championship since 2009, giving the Bruins now four wins to the Trojans’ three in the matchup. 

“Today was a classic UCLA-USC game, always down to the last possession,” said coach Adam Wright. “I want to really thank the NCAA committee for supporting this, this means the world to all the kids. Not only our kids because we are successful but every team that was here – truly a special event. It was first class, I don’t think we’ve ever stayed in the hotel like we stayed in. The amount of money and resources that went into hosting this and putting this on, we really lived a great life here over the last five days.”

The Bruins upset No. 1 seed and MPSF champion Stanford – the defending national champions – in the semifinals as well as defeating No. 5 seed and WWPA champion California Baptist to earn their trip to the game. 

UCLA held USC scoreless in the first half as the Trojans shot 0-of-12, including 0-of-6 on powerplay situations. Sophomore goalkeeper Bernardo Maurizi registered six saves and a steal in the half. The Bruins earned eight steals to the Trojans’ three in the first half.

“We won as a team,” Maurizi said. “It’s clear that this one was just the whole group and the whole team. They helped me with blocks, they helped me with steals. They gave me that confidence to perform at my best.”

Both teams failed to convert until MPSF Newcomer of the Year freshman attacker Mo Kenney netted a shot with two minutes to go in the first to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead at the quarter’s end. 

Sophomore attacker Tommy Gruwell scored his first goal of the game as a man-up opportunity expired with only a minute of clock gone in the second quarter. Redshirt junior utility Evan Rosenfeld later converted to put UCLA up three. 

USC scored back-to-back goals to open the second half before junior attacker Jake Cavano regained the Bruins’ multi-goal advantage. The Trojans scored consecutive goals again before senior attacker Chasen Travisano stopped the run to bring USC’s third-quarter advantage to 4-2 on 4-of-5 shooting and the game within one.  

“USC has so many weapons, not only in the middle, but three left hands and (2-meter Jake Ehrhardt),” Wright said. “To hold them to the amount of goals we held them to today is really a testament that our guys rose to the challenge. And really, we know that if our offense isn’t going well, if we can fall back on our defense that we’ll still have a shot at this thing and that’s what they did.”

Senior attacker Nicolas Saveljic and Cavano scored on UCLA’s first two possessions of the final stanza to bring the lead back to three before USC’s driver Jacob Mercep scored and assisted on two goals to cut the lead to one. 

Maurizi registered his eighth save of the game with just over two minutes to play to stop an equalizer attempt from the Trojans. USC missed a shot off the post on a powerplay in the final seconds. 

“I’m speechless,” Saveljic said. “We’ve been working for this the entire season. We’ve been ready for this moment. As coach Adam always says, we approach every single day like it’s the NCAA final, you know, and that came today and we were ready. I’m extremely thankful to be here, to be part of this team. We’re really one big family.”

UCLA finished the game just 7-of-29, including 3-of-12 during six-on-five situations at USC’s Uytengsu Aquatics Center. The team finished with six individual scorers, with Cavano being the only to net more than one.

The win also marked the Bruins’ fourth national championship under Wright – and his first without an opening-round bye. Playing in the midst of the pandemic, the three-time Olympian said the victory is one he and his team will remember forever.

“This one’s special,” Wright said. “It’s been a tough year on everyone. For all these kids from every school, this is not what they ever envisioned for their college experience to be like. We had fun and a tough moment in our lifetime. … To see these guys just stay strong and keep pushing through and finish it in this position is one that we’ll never forget. And you know, (every national championship is) great. But this one, this one’s certainly different because of the environment we all faced as a community.”

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Kyle Boal | Sports senior staff
Boal is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women's water polo beat. He was an assistant Sports editor on the gymnastics, rowing, swim and dive, men's water polo and women's water polo beats. Boal was previously a contributor on the men's water polo and women's water polo beats.
Boal is currently a Sports senior staff writer on the women's water polo beat. He was an assistant Sports editor on the gymnastics, rowing, swim and dive, men's water polo and women's water polo beats. Boal was previously a contributor on the men's water polo and women's water polo beats.
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