Saturday, May 18

UCLA men’s water polo advances to NCAA Championship with victory over Princeton

Senior attacker Makoto Kenney lifts the ball into the air with his right hand. Kenney finished with a career-high eight assists against Princeton. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

Men’s water polo

No. 4 seed Princeton13
No. 1 seed UCLA17

The fate of an entire season rested within the bounds of six minutes.

Senior attacker Makoto Kenney pump-faked a shot from the center of the pool but instead passed to MPSF Player of the Year, Rafael Real Vergara.

“I love passing to my teammates,” Kenney said. “It makes me happy – more than goals.”

The Brazilian senior attacker – whose arm reared back like a slingshot – buried the ball in the back of the net to give the Bruins a 12-11, fourth-period lead – an advantage that the Bruins would hold until the clock struck zero.

“I love that,” said coach Adam Wright about Kenney’s career-high eight assists. “At UCLA, we don’t care who scores – we really don’t. This is what UCLA is all about.”

No. 1 seed UCLA men’s water polo (26-2, 7-0 MPSF) defeated No. 4 seed Princeton (28-6, 9-1 NWPC) on Saturday afternoon 17-13 in the NCAA semifinals. Highlighted by Kenney’s milestone nine points, which led to three Bruin hat tricks and a seven-for-nine record on power plays, UCLA earned an NCAA Championship berth for the first time since it won it all in 2020.

“This has been one of the most enjoyable seasons I’ve had in a long time,” Wright said. “Our culture is just in such a great place. They mean the world to me.” 

Freshman attacker Wade Sherlock and redshirt seniors, attacker Jack Larson and utility Giorgio Alessandria combined for 10 of the Bruins’ 17 goals, each completing a hat trick.

Alessandria matched a season-high three-goal mark, while Larsen scored four goals for the first time since he came up one short of the MPSF record with eight goals against Pacific earlier this season.

Redshirt senior attacker Jack Larsen drives toward the goal with the ball in his right hand. Larsen scored four goals Saturday, the most he’s notched since Sept. 16. (Nicolas Greamo/Daily Bruin senior staff)

“I was just fortunate enough,” Larsen said. “Our mantra before the game was focus on defense, let the offense come. I was fortunate to be in there when we were getting exclusions early.”

Reminiscent of the programs’ Oct. 18 matchup, Princeton held a two-goal lead early in the first quarter. But the Bruins struck back.

Three straight goals – including two from Sherlock – helped the Bruins enter the second period with a 4-3 lead. 

However, the Tigers flipped the script in the second period and outscored the Bruins 5-3 to take a halftime lead. A breakaway goal on a steal from Kenney’s grasp and another on an unmarked rebound – which led to a goal – sent the Bruins into the third frame down a point.

UCLA responded by outscoring Princeton 4-2 in the third, but with just under seven minutes left in the fourth quarter, the programs were knotted at 11. 

Then, the Bruins pulled away from their Northeastern foes.

After Real Vergara’s second goal of the game put the Bruins ahead, UCLA outscored Princeton 5-2, capped off by senior goalkeeper Garret Griggs joining the scoresheet with his first goal of the season, scoring on the Tigers’ open net and delivering the final blow.

The fourth period displayed the Bruins’ defensive backbone, featuring three saves by Griggs and forcing the Tigers to turn the ball over four times. 

“We don’t have to scramble to try to do something new – it was defense,” Wright said. “Start with making a stop, then let’s get our counter going.”

Sunday will be the Bruins’ date with destiny as UCLA is set to face the winner of the second NCAA semifinal between No. 2 seed California and No. 3 seed USC. 

“There’s nothing to hold on to or protect,” Wright said. “It’s just go and give it everything we got, and have fun doing it.” 


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