Dec. 6, 2009

 

By Trevor Freeman
Special to NCAA.com

Princeton, N.J.
– USC.  UCLA.

Two crosstown rivals battling for the NCAA’s grandest prize.  This was the game that everyone expected coming into the weekend.   It was the fifth time these two teams played this year and the rubber match was riveting theater.  

The main storyline heading into this season was USC’s chance to cement their legacy.  Last season, the Trojans won every game they played in route to an NCAA Championship.  While USC may have lost twice this season, this squad showed their championship mettle when it mattered in winning their second straight NCAA title.  Their ten graduating seniors capped off their careers in an afternoon that they will remember forever.

Like any great championship fight, the two sides felt each other out for the first minute.  Then the scoring commenced as Peter Kurzeka got loose on the counterattack to put USC out in front.  Two minutes later, Jordan Thompson drew a five-meter penalty shot and Shea Buckner converted it to put USC out in front by two goals.  The lead swelled to three goals when 2008 United States Olympian J.W. Krumpholz pumped one in from two-meters.  
UCLA defeated USC by four goals in USC’s home pool in the MPSF semifinals.  It was a loss that had to embarrass a senior-laden team with as much pride as the Trojans have.  USC played this first quarter like an angry team with something to prove.  

After being thoroughly dominated in the first quarter, UCLA struck first in the second quarter with a power play goal by former Brazilian Junior National team player Emilio Viera.  However, USC kept their foot on the gas pedal as NCAA Tournament MVP Jordan Thompson immediately returned fire to keep the Trojans up by three goals.  This score would not stall UCLA’s momentum as Ben Hohl and Griffin White tallied back to back goals to cut the lead to one at halftime.

Both teams made adjustments in the locker room which led to the defenses on both sides tightening up at the beginning of the second half.  The scoring commenced in the second half when Jordan Thompson notched a highlight reel goal out of two-meter.  Thompson literally flipped the ball directly over his head between the arms of Chay Lapin.  It was not your garden variety, sweep shot at all.  On the next possession down the pool, Thompson then made a tremendous pass out of two-meter to Peter Kurzeka who pumped in his third goal.  The lead had once again swelled to three with three minutes left in the third quarter and this time it felt like USC might run away with the NCAA Championship.

With the game slipping away, UCLA responded with an outstanding power play possession.  Scott Davidson found Jacob Murphy with a beautiful pass that Murphy redirected in to shave the deficit to two goals.  With six seconds remaining in the period, UCLA shaved the deficit to one goal when lefty Ben Hohl scored on the counterattack.

With the NCAA Championship on the line, USC and UCLA staged a fourth quarter for the ages.  Down 6-5, with USC threatening for another goal, Chay Lapin made a galvanizing save for the Bruins.  He blocked a Matt Sagehorn shot off a counterattack to keep the deficit at one goal.  The intense defensive battle would continue back and forth with the drought finally being broken by Matt Sagehorn on a USC power play.  Up two goals with 3:47 left in the fourth quarter, USC could taste the championship.  However, the Bruins would not fold and responded with a Ben Hohl goal a little over a minute later to cut the lead back down to one score.  After an exchange of defensive stops, UCLA called time out with fifteen seconds left and a chance to tie the game.  UCLA ran a series of drives and could not free up an open man.  Finally Ben Hohl took a desperation shot which was swatted down.  USC had emerged with a second straight NCAA Championship.

While UCLA may have lost today, they will be the prohibitive favorite heading into next season as they return a host of star talent.  Josh Samuels (second-team All-Tournament), Griffin White, Cole Consani, Ben Hohl (first-team All-Tournament, Cullen Hennessy (second-team All-Tournament), Jacob Murphy, Emilio Vieira and Bret Lathrope all return for a squad that will be eager to take home a title they barely lost this season.

The title tilt for the ages almost did not occur as UCLA and Loyola Marymount staged an epic, overtime battle in their Final Four matchup.   In a game that no one wanted to see end, Cole Consani notched the game-winner with thirty-seven seconds to give the Bruins their margin of victory.  MPSF Player of the Year Scott Davidson scored five times to lead the Bruins.  Loyola Marymount received stellar play from Tibor Forai and Andy Stevens as Forai scored four times while Stevens blocked eleven shots.  In the other Final Four matchup, USC cruised into the Final by defeating Princeton 13-3.

In what was arguably the most stunning upset of the season, thirteenth-ranked Princeton shocked sixth-ranked Loyola Marymount for third place in front of a boisterous group of home fans.  Mike Merlone was tremendous in the cage for Princeton as he totaled five saves including a five-meter penalty shot (along with a number of steals).    Mark Zalewski scored two goals to lead the Tigers in scoring.  This game was a classic case of one team coming out fired up while the other squad came out flat.  You could tell Loyola Marymount was still a broken team from their overtime loss the night before to UCLA.  This win was a big one for both Princeton and Eastern water polo.  It is important that Eastern teams are able to prove that they can hold their own against the best teams from the West Coast.

Despite the loss to Princeton, Loyola Marymount has reason to be hopeful as they have a chance next season to get back to the NCAA Final Four and play for an NCAA Championship.  Loyola Marymount returns all of their stars.  Andy Stevens who was once again first-team All-NCAA Tournament is the best goalie in the country and will be a heavy contender for the Cutino Award next season.   The explosive Tibor Forai (also first-team All-NCAA Tournament) will also return and he is somebody who will contend for first-team All-American honors as a senior.  The Lions also bring back two All-WWPA lefties in Edgaras Asajavicius and Andrew Aki.  Loyola Marymount was only a couple of bounces away from playing for the title this season. 

Next year, this team will be back and they will be primed to have a campaign for the ages.