The Bruins’ regular-season finale didn’t go as expected.
No. 2 UCLA men’s water polo (6-5, 5-5 MPSF) defeated No. 3 Stanford (3-3, 3-3) on Saturday 11-10 before falling to No. 1 California (7-3, 7-3) on Sunday 16-15 for the third time in overtime this season. The team lost to No. 4 USC (4-7, 3-7) only hours later 9-4 at the Stanford Round Robin.
Shorthanded all weekend, the Bruins played without sophomore attacker Tommy Gruwell – the conference’s fourth-leading scorer after missing the entire round robin – against the Cardinal, before running into COVID-19 protocol complications that kept out at least two more players Sunday.
Freshman attacker Tanner Pulice, named the MPSF/KAP7 Newcomer of the Week on Feb. 1, and freshman attacker Hayden Nightingale sat out both games Sunday because of COVID-19-testing-related complications at Avery Aquatic Center. Both Pulice and Nightingale tested negative by the end of the day and rejoined the team immediately.
“I couldn’t ask more from our group,” said coach Adam Wright. “And there’s no excuse, because we always talk about – if there’s only seven of us, we’re going to go. But at the same time, these guys dug deep today, in tough circumstances – really, really tough circumstances and against a really good team – Cal is an incredibly good team. We had our opportunities from the beginning. We were in a really good place, and unfortunately, we just didn’t stay consistent and it cost us. We’re going to learn from that.”
Sophomore goalkeeper Bernardo Maurizi played all 102 minutes in the cage for UCLA, leading the round robin in saves with 34, bringing his season total to 122, while no other conference player has triple digits. Maurizi’s high save tally is due in part to a lack of field blocks from the Bruins’ center when playing in zone.
The Florence, Italy native set the UCLA freshman record for saves in a game a season ago with 19, and explained how the Bruins can improve defensively.
“What we can adjust is field blocks, especially during the zone,” Maurizi said. “In this process, you need to take an angle, you know, an angle off the goal. And it can be nearside, cross cage or whatever we set it up for. Having more field blocks will definitely give me more safety, but at the same time we’ve been doing a better job this weekend at crashing the ball. … We’ll work our way to it. I’m not stressed about it. I know that we will put that work in practice just to get better.”
Entering the season losing five of its last six, UCLA triumphed over Stanford in both matchups this season. The Bruins shot 11-of-24 while senior attacker Nicolas Saveljic led all scorers with four goals, half of his record-setting eight two weeks ago against the Cardinal.
Saveljic again led all players in scoring versus California with six goals, where the team led 13-9 in the third quarter before being held scoreless for 14 straight minutes. After five consecutive Golden Bear goals, the Bruins needed a score from junior attacker Jake Cavano with five seconds left to level the game at 14 apiece, sending the match to overtime.
UCLA has played three overtimes this season with California, being outscored 9-4 in the extra periods. The Bruins had a lead they lost in each of its other overtime losses at some point in the final quarter of regulation.
Maurizi said the team hasn’t played to its potential yet.
“I will tell you this; we still haven’t gave our full potential and played as UCLA can play against Cal,” Maurizi said. “This morning we did a better job, as I mentioned before, at crashing the ball, but it is all up to us, you know. We need to just play our game – under control – because Cal is a really phonetic team. You don’t have to rush with them. You get to play wise and you get to play controlled. And that’s definitely up to us, and it’s not up to Cal.”
The Bruins ended the weekend scoring only four goals against the Trojans, their lowest goal total since Nov. 22, 2014, when UCLA lost 5-3 to Long Beach State before going on to win the national championship later that season.
Ending tied as the leader from the round robin and the conference leader in goals, Saveljic netted no shots on five attempts against the Trojans, as the Bruins would go 4-of-24 from the pool and 0-of-13 in six-on-five situations.
Jumping to a quick 2-0 lead in the first stanza, UCLA entered halftime tied at two goals apiece, starting the final period down by one before USC scored four unanswered to secure a comfortable victory.
Saveljic said despite the short turnaround between games Sunday, this weekend was a great opportunity to learn how the team plays when tired.
“Six-on-five was something that didn’t really go well tonight and it was very, very challenging to play back-to-back games basically without the rest,” Saveljic said. “We pretty much had time to grab lunch and then jump into the next game, which I mean, that schedule is never going to happen again. So I’m happy that we got a chance. It was a great test to see how we react and play when we’re tired and when the energy level is low and what kind of decisions we make when we’re … tired.”
Freshman attacker Mo Kenney was responsible for 75% of the team’s points against USC, netting a hat trick in both matches Sunday while adding two goals against Stanford.
With the MPSF tournament on the horizon, hosted at the Bruins’ home pool, Wright said he was proud of how his team finished the regular season.
“We know we have to be flexible. We understand the circumstances we’re in, but you know, today was a really tough situation, and I couldn’t be more proud of the way the guys handled it. I couldn’t be more proud of the way the guys fought,” Wright said. “The reality is, you know, it wasn’t an ideal day. But I think the growth that our program experienced today because of the situation and the environment that we were put in was really, really good for us.”