Water Polo

USC falls to UCLA in tight NCAA Championship finish

After a streaky offensive performance, the Trojans failed to equalize down the stretch.

The sound of the UCLA fight song and the whistling of the Bruins fans who watched from the top of the Jefferson Boulevard Parking Structure reverberated through Uytengsu Aquatics Center Sunday afternoon. It echoed through the Zoom room as USC head coach Marko Pintaric addressed the media.

“I would like to congratulate my team for a great fight,” he said. “They came back and put on quite a show.”

With an extremely competitive MPSF conference this season, it seemed that the NCAA Championship was up for grabs. Only in the pandemic year could USC post a losing regular-season record and make the title game.

But ultimately, the other underdog — No. 3 seed UCLA — prevailed in a 7-6 finish.

Defense wasn’t the issue for the Trojans. The seven UCLA goals are the fewest USC conceded in the tournament, and junior goalie Nic Porter came up with some highlight reel stops.

But a scoreless first half of water polo generally will not get it done, and USC was down 3-0 after its first scoreless half of the season. (It could have been way uglier if not for Porter, who tallied 13 saves on the game.)

“We couldn’t put the ball behind the net,” Pintaric said. “Then again, that’s a tribute to UCLA playing very good defense in the first half and throughout the whole game.”

The Trojans continued to play streaky in the second half, coming back to tie the game at four before allowing three straight UCLA goals. It looked very different from Saturday’s semifinal match against Cal, where the Trojans seemed to have an answer for every opposing goal.

USC’s scoring droughts came despite 12 power play opportunities, of which the Trojans only capitalized on one.

In the end, USC fell just short of another comeback, as a final shot by sophomore driver Chris Sturtevant hit the crossbar and the UCLA bench erupted in cheers.

Although the Trojans didn’t win it all this season, Pintaric and the older players are confident that USC has what it takes to contend again next year. They’re particularly encouraged by the team’s young talent — freshman driver Carson Kranz is a scoring machine, and Sturtevant and sophomore driver Marcus Longton have also shown up in big moments this season.

“This team kept [its] composure throughout the entire season. We lost more games than we ever have before, but we made it to an NCAA final,” said redshirt senior driver Luke Wyatt, who played his last game as a Trojan Sunday. “[We have] so many young players and they have the potential to go on in these next years.”

After a nontraditional schedule due to the coronavirus pandemic — men’s water polo usually plays in the fall — Porter is already excited about the team’s next opportunity.

“I know I’m looking forward to getting started with preseason training whenever that is and working toward going one step further in the fall,” he said. “This is a group with a lot of potential, and we’re going to use this as motivation.”