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UCLA men’s water polo anticipates NCAA tournament-opening matchups

Redshirt senior utility Evan Rosenfeld lines up for a pass. Rosenfeld and No. 1 UCLA men’s water polo will begin their title defense in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament against Princeton on Thursday. (Ashley Kenney/Photo editor)

Men's Water Polo

Thursday, 3 p.m.

Spieker Aquatics Center
UCLA Live Stream-2

By Ricardo Garcia

Dec. 2, 2021 12:26 a.m.

For the second year in a row, the Bruins’ path to a national championship will require three wins in four days.

Fresh off a victory in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championship game, No. 1 UCLA men’s water polo (19-3, 1-2 MPSF) will open its title defense Thursday at Spieker Aquatics Center, marking its 36th all-time appearance in the NCAA tournament. The last time the Bruins hosted the tournament, they defeated their crosstown rivals to cap off an undefeated 30-0 championship season.

Despite winning the conference tournament, UCLA is seeded behind No. 3 California (20-4, 4-0), who finished in fourth place in the MPSF tournament, and No. 1 USC (17-2, 2-1), whom the blue and gold defeated in the semifinals. The Golden Bears and Trojans each earned byes for the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

As a result, UCLA will play No. 11 Princeton (26-7, 8-2 NWPC) in the quarterfinals of the tournament. The winner of the quarterfinal game will draw Cal in the semifinals.

Redshirt senior utility Evan Rosenfeld said he is looking forward to the challenge of a potential matchup with the Golden Bears.

“If we beat Cal and we beat ‘SC, then we’re the best team in the nation,” Rosenfeld said. “Seeding doesn’t have anything to do with it.”

But the Bruins first have to conquer the Tigers, who they are 15-0 against all-time and most recently defeated 14-5 at the Navy Open in Annapolis, Maryland, in 2019.

Graduate student attacker Nicolas Saveljic said he feels confident in coach Adam Wright’s preparations for the tournament opener.

“If there is a game Princeton played in the last three months, Adam watched it,” Saveljic said. “I feel confident being coached by the legend he is. We will be ready.”

Rosenfeld, who hasn’t played against the Tigers since his freshman year, said the opponent doesn’t dictate how the team plays, despite the challenge of playing a team the Bruins don’t regularly face.

“I think that is something that’s a little strange, playing an East Coast team,” Rosenfeld said. “It really doesn’t matter who we play. We try and play our game.”

UCLA has accumulated a 12-5 record in the NCAA tournament since Wright took over as head coach in 2009. The Bruins have won four national championships during Wright’s tenure, including back-to-back championships in 2014 and 2015.

Last season marked the first time a Wright-led team won the championship without a bye into the semifinals as UCLA defeated California Baptist, Stanford and USC at Uytengsu Aquatics Center over a stretch of four days.

Over the course of the MPSF tournament, UCLA shot 43-of-90 combined against its three opponents, including 10-of-24 on the power play. Defensively, it allowed 18 of 85 shots to find the back of the net.

Rosenfeld said the improvements over the course of the season can be credited to each team member sticking to their roles, adding that the team’s discipline is its biggest strength heading into the tournament.

“If we can be the most disciplined team and play our game, we’re going to have an incredible advantage,” Rosenfeld said. “We don’t have to do anything special. We look back starting at the beginning of the season, we had guys doing things that we didn’t do last season. Sometimes, individuals start to feel like they need to do more. But at the end of the day, that’s not what UCLA polo does. We just have our individual jobs.”

Saveljic said the team’s improvements are a result of the Bruins’ tight-knit culture.

“Change means something greater than yourself, committing to a team, to family that moves together as a unit,” Saveljic said.

Opening sprint against Princeton is set for Thursday at 3 p.m. at Spieker Aquatics Center.

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Ricardo Garcia | Sports reporter
Garcia is currently a reporter on the women's water polo beat. He was previously a contributor on the swim & dive, track & field and men's water polo beats.
Garcia is currently a reporter on the women's water polo beat. He was previously a contributor on the swim & dive, track & field and men's water polo beats.
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