Water polo bests No. 2 UCLA to close regular season

Sophomore driver Jacob Mercep looks for the back of the net against UCLA. (Josh Dunst | Daily Trojan)

The No. 1 USC men’s water polo team capped off its regular season on Saturday with a 12-11 victory against No. 2 UCLA, fending off a late comeback by the Bruins to secure a regular season record of 28-1.

Coming into Saturday’s showdown, both teams were well aware that the outcome would determine the seeding of the upcoming Mountain Pacific Invitational tournament. A first-round bye was at stake for the two top-ranked opponents.

The clash began with missed opportunities for both teams. The Trojans peppered UCLA’s goal from the start, forcing redshirt junior goalie Alex Wolf to put up some early saves. After a quiet first few minutes, USC broke the silence with 2 goals.

Following the Trojans’ initial surge, the game turned into a shootout. UCLA answered each of USC’s scores to keep themselves within 1 goal at the end of the first frame, a trend that continued into the second period. Although USC achieved a 3-goal advantage UCLA freshman attacker Jake Cavano topped off a first-half hat trick to bring the Bruins within 2 at the half.

At halftime, the Trojans lead 8-6 and discussed adjustments to be made on both ends of the pool.

“We had to focus a lot more on defense, on who we want to shoot the ball,” senior driver Zach D’Sa said. “On offense, just putting away our shots. Their goalie wasn’t having a good day so we just had to put it away.”

While the first half was largely a contest between two aggressive offenses, the defensive efforts of both teams resulted in a scoring drought which lasted through the majority of the third quarter. Freshman goalie Nic Porter, who was nominated this past week for his third MPSF Newcomer of the Week honor, came up big for the Trojans with four saves in the quarter to keep the Bruins at bay. D’Sa awakened the Trojan offense late in the third with 2 goals to put USC up 10-6 entering the final frame.

“[Scoring those goals] was really good because both teams were starting to die a little bit, and I know I was pretty tired,” D’Sa said. “But it was good because it was 0-0 in that quarter, and the third quarter is the most important.”

While the Trojans held UCLA scoreless in the third quarter, the fourth was another story. Four consecutive goals from the Bruins brought the match to a tie with only two and a half minutes to go.

“They started making their shots,” D’Sa said about UCLA’s fourth quarter effort. “The guys that we didn’t want to shoot were shooting the ball and they were scoring. We definitely need to adjust that and focus more on the fourth quarter and not let them get back in the game.”

Junior driver Marin Dasic found the back of the net with 19 seconds remaining. A last second shot from UCLA looked as though it might tie things up again, but it instead hit the post, securing a 12-11 win for the Trojans.

The Trojans’ two graduating seniors, D’Sa and driver Daniel Leong, were honored prior to the game as part of the annual Senior Day Ceremony. Leong contributed an early assist for the Trojans, while D’Sa boasted a hat trick, including the  only 2 scores of the third period. Another standout for the Trojans was redshirt junior 2-meter Sam Slobodien, who led the Trojan offense with 4 goals.

Remaining at No. 1 after defeating UCLA, USC has a first-round bye in this weekend’s MPSF tournament, automatically advancing to Saturday’s semifinal match. The Trojans aim to enter the NCAA Championships as the No. 1 seed.

“We need to get that No. 1 seed,” D’Sa said. “We haven’t been there in a long time, and No. 1 seed going into NCAAs is really important to us.”