No. 2 USC beats No. 1 UCLA for MPSF Title

Redshirt senior driver Jacob Mercep attempts a shot during USC’s 8-7 victory Saturday against UCLA.
Redshirt senior driver Jacob Mercep attempts a shot during USC’s 8-7 victory Saturday against UCLA. Mercep finished the game with 2 assists, including the final Trojans goal. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

“Porter’s ugly,” the Bruin-faithful chanted. All the while, senior goalie Nic Porter rested his arms along the end line float as he led the Trojans to a 8-7 victory Saturday to secure a MSPF Conference Title. 

It was that kind of game. No. 1 UCLA came to Uytengsu Aquatic Center to play No. 2 USC on senior day, a crosstown rival game to close the season and the visiting fans cranked up the heat. 

“You really couldn’t write a better script, to be honest,” said Porter after the game. “It was all set up perfectly. It’s just a beautiful fairytale. And for my seniors and [me], this is just the perfect way to cap off our careers here at USC.”

None of the chants seemed to faze him. He knocked away 12 shots, including 4 in the second period to keep the score 2-2 at halftime. 

“The funny thing, is when they’re cheering, saying all those bad things about me, they don’t realize that actually fires me up,” Porter said. “I try to convert that into energy. I’ll use it to make a save or call a defense or hype up my team. It ultimately makes it a positive for us. The more they want to cheer me, the better.”

The Trojans’ hands constantly swarmed and the zone remained disciplined to cut off shooting angles. USC blocked 2 shot attempts and forced 7 off-target. 

Head Coach Marko Pintaric deployed redshirt senior driver Jacob Mercep as an aggressive presser, and he was responsible for 4 of USC’s 9 steals. Although Mercep didn’t score, he assisted twice, including the Trojans’ final goal by redshirt junior driver Ashworth Molthen. 

Under duress, with the shot clock winding down, Mercep flipped the ball to a wide open Molthen. He bounced the ball past the Bruin keeper to put the Trojans at an 8-6 advantage with eight seconds remaining. 

“I was thinking, ‘We gotta put this goal away. We gotta get this one. If we get this one, it’s our game,’” Molthen said. “And we executed perfectly.”

Molthen played with UCLA for two years and then transferred to USC in 2020. After the game-sealing goal, Molthen turned toward the visiting fans, flashed a wide grin and threw up a quick “Fight On!” before dipping underneath the water. 

“Oh, it feels amazing. No doubt,” Molthen said. “Those celebrations are just my emotions flying out after a huge game.”

UCLA got back a goal, but seconds later, the clock hit zero and the Uytengsu Aquatic Center erupted. Pintaric immediately ran over to the home crowd, screaming and pumping his fists.

“This is what we were missing. In coronavirus, you lost that sense of playing in front of a full crowd … It’s more intense, and this is what water polo is all about,” Pintaric said. “Very proud of the boys that they executed.”

In the second half, both teams’ offenses turned it on, scoring a combined 11 goals compared to the first half’s 4. Pintaric credited his center forwards, praising their ability to establish deep position, which opened up the attack for USC. 

Sophomore driver Carson Kranz benefited from the centers, finding the back of the net twice in the second half. On one score, Kranz lurked near the back post and caught a lob pass from Mercep, rose above the water and touched the ball past UCLA goalie Bernardo Maurizi.

USC will have a break this upcoming week, with the alumni game approaching. They’ll head to the MPSF tournament next week and possibly the NCAA tournament.

“My stress to the boys [is that] the job’s not done yet. Obviously, that’s just the regular season. We know there’s things we can do to improve and work on in order for us to be the best we can be,” Porter said. “And in order for us to put ourselves in the best position to win a national championship, we’re going to be very focused [to] make sure we finish off the season the way we where we started.” 

Even with work to be done, Porter knows that the win over UCLA deserves celebration. As a wave of blue shirts quietly exited the arena, Porter was all smiles.

The Trojans await their MPSF tournament matchup