Wins by UC San Diego, UCLA Finalize the 2018 NCAA Men’s Water Polo Final Four at Stanford

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Relentless pressure by Cooper Milton and UC San Diego doomed Long Beach State to defeat in NCAA quarterfinal play. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

The quarterfinals for the 2018 NCAA Men’ Water Polo Tournament took place in overcast, rainy conditions at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center—but the results were nothing but sunshine for UC San Diego and UCLA. Both teams gained decisive victories to advance to Saturday’s semifinal match-ups as part of a Final Four group that includes the host Cardinal, the tournament’s #1 seed, and second seeded USC.

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In Thursday’s earlier contest, UC San Diego broke open a close game, scoring nine times after intermission to break a five-all tie and snap Long Beach State’s seven-match win streak with a 14-9 win. Powered by a career-high seven goals from Connor Turnbow-Lindenstadt—including four in the final period—the Tritons proved that their late-season sprint, where they defeated reigning Western Water Polo Association champs UC Davis twice in a two-week span to earn the WWPA’s NCAA berth, was no fluke.

“We really did wear (Long Beach State) out, it was pretty obvious.” Triton Head Coach Denny Harper said in comments on the UCSD website. “We were tied at half and it was all us in the second half.”

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Matthew Kacura up for a shot against George Washington. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

Next up for Harper’s squad (20-5) is a match today at 6 p.m. EST against Stanford (20-2), whose last appearance in the NCAA tournament was 2015. The nation’s top-ranked team boasts Ben Hallock, Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) 2018 Player of the Year, who led his conference with 58 goals. Head Coach John Vargas has surrounded his center with a superb supporting cast Tyler Abramson, Blake Parrish, Jackson Seybold and Dylan Woodhead—making the Cardinal a tough out in their own pool.

UC San Diego—which is in the process of moving from NCAA Division II to Division I status—is not a team to be awed by the moment. In addition to Turnbow-Lindenstadt, the Triton have Skyler Munatones, Noah Carniglia along with goalie Jack Turner (14 saves Thursday), who is playing inspired ball at just the right time.

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Conner Turnbow-Lindenstadt. Photo Courtesy: UCSD Athletics

The Tritons are no strangers to upsets; In 2000, they became the first and only non-Division I team to play in the NCAA championship game when they shocked USC in the semifinals before falling to UCLA in the final.

In Thursday’s other semifinal, those very same Bruins opened the game sprinting to a 4-0 lead, which George Washington never recovered from, as the Colonials would fall 18-6 to UCLA. Adam Wright’s squad got three goals apiece from Ash Molthen, Austin Rone and Nicolas Saveljic to position themselves for a rematch at 8 p.m. EST today with MPSF rival USC. The Bruins (23-4) and Trojans (28-3) have split two prior contests this season; USC won 12-11 on November 10, then UCLA took a 7-4 decision in the 3rd place match of the MPSF tournament.

All-time, the series between these rivals, which dates back longer than the NCAA men’s tournament has been in existence, is 87-81-1, but UCLA has recently won when it mattered most. Their three most recent NCAA titles—2014, 2015 and 2017—have come at the Trojans’ expense. An impressive streak is on the line today for Jovan Vavic’s squad; a win today will extend USC’s streak of appeared in an NCAA championship games to 14–an accomplishment that the Bruins would like nothing better than to end. Back in 2016, it was USC that ended UCLA’s own impressive streak: 57 straight wins, an NCAA record for water polo.

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Can anyone stop this man? Bruins will have to if they’re to advance. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

For Barry King, George Washington head coach who last year took the Colonials to their first-ever NCAA berth then got them to California in 2018, the outcome was predictably bittersweet. In postgame remarks he cited his team’s inability to convert on early chances, which landed GW into a 9-3 deficit by halftime.

“I just can’t be happier with my squad than I am right now,” King said after the loss. “We emptied our tanks and gave everything we had.”

And, in a comment that should bring pride to GW faithful, their leader added: “We’re looking forward to use this experience to get at least one game further next year.”