The men’s water polo team marched into the 2015 NCAA championship game on Sunday in Westwood looking to take back the title from UCLA, but ultimately came up short in a 10-7 defeat as the Bruins claimed their second consecutive national crown.
Coming into the game 0-3 this season against the Bruins, the Trojans eyed revenge in the most important match of the year. The effort was there, but in the end, USC became just another pawn in an undefeated, 30-0 season for UCLA en route to the title.
“Our team fought hard,” head coach Jovan Vavic said. “It was a great battle. I’m very proud of my players. They were very energized. They fought. They never quit. This is a young team with 14-15 players coming back. We’re going to come back next season.”
The Trojans made their 11th consecutive appearance in the NCAA title match, but have now lost two straight championship games to the Bruins.
With UCLA holding a 7-6 lead to start the fourth quarter, the Bruins outscored the Trojans 3-1 in the final stanza to pull away. Max Irving and Anthony Daboub connected on goals to put UCLA in front 9-6 with four minutes to play.
Blake Edwards’ goal at the 3:21 mark cut the advantage down to two, but the Men of Troy came up empty on their remaining possessions, while the Bruins stood tall on defense and held on for the win.
“They stopped us when they needed to,” Vavic said. “There were moments in the game when we came back and we made it a one-goal game in the fourth quarter. We didn’t make stops. When they needed to score goals, they shot the ball better than us.”
It started out promising for the Trojans, who jumped out to a 3-1 first period lead on goals by sophomores Matteo Morelli and Lachlan Edwards. But UCLA responded quickly with a pair of goals by Ryder Roberts, 30 seconds apart from the same spot.
“We leave their best shooter open,” Vavic said. “Why is [Roberts] shooting the ball two times in a row when we’re up 3-1? This is like leaving Michael Jordan wide open. That’s our problem. We got excited, we got a lead and we kind of relaxed. We can’t do that.”
UCLA built off the momentum, scoring four unanswered goals to take a 5-3 lead into halftime. The two teams traded goals for the next six tallies with the Bruins answering every time the Trojans clawed within one.
“[UCLA] was definitely a more poised team,” Vavic said. “When things didn’t go their way, they didn’t panic. They did what they needed to do.”
After Chancellor Ramirez gave UCLA a 7-5 lead with 49 seconds left in the third period, Edwards responded with a power play goal to make it a 7-6 game heading into the fourth.
“Playing in the championship game is a big deal,” sophomore goalie McQuin Baron said. “You’d much rather come up with a win than a loss.”
USC, which outshot UCLA 32-30, entered the title match with wins in the play-in game over Claremont-Mudd-Scripps and in the semifinal match over Cal. But the Trojans, who end their season with a 22-7 record, ran into a UCLA team on a mission to complete a perfect campaign.
“We believed we were going to win the game all the way through,” Vavic said. “We had our chances, even in the fourth quarter. We had our opportunities. We never stopped believing. We’re going to learn from this. We’re going to get stronger from this, for sure.”