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LOS ANGELES, Calif. — The No. 4 seed/No. 5-ranked Princeton University men’s water polo team fell by a 17-13 score to No. 1 seed/No. 3 the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) in the semifinals of the 2023 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Men’s Water Polo Championship at University of Southern California’s Uytengsu Aquatics Center.

Princeton – which concludes the season with the program’s all-time best mark of  28-6 – jumped on the scoreboard first as  Vladan Mitrovic scored a man-up strike 26 seconds into the first quarter off an assist from Finn LeSieur.   UCLA answered with 6:15 left in the opening quarter as goalkeeper Garret Griggs found Jack Larsen for an even-strength equalizer.  Princeton regained the lead under two minutes later as Pierce Maloney dented the twine at 4:32 prior to Roko Pozaric cashing in for a man-up tally off an assist by Mason Killion at 3:35 to push the Tigers ahead 3-1.

UCLA responsed, however, as Makoto Kenney found Wade Sherlock for a man-up goal at 3:06 prior to the duo repeating the feat with the squads at even-strength with 2:24 on the clock to make it a three-all contest.

The Bruins went ahead prior to the end of the first quarter as Rafael Real Vergara rifled in a man-up marker off an assist from Kenney with two seconds left in the opening eight minutes as UCLA pulled in front 4-3.

UCLA continued its offensive onslaught in the dawning moments of the second quarter as Kenney found Sherlock for another man-up goal with 4:49 left in the first half. 

Trailing 5-3, Princeton began to claw its way back into the contest as Isaac Rotenberg dished a pass to Maloney who cashed in the assistance for a natural goal at 4:25 to move the Tigers back to within one at 5-4. 

UCLA regained a two-goal lead at 3:38 as Frederico Juca Carsalade found Ben Liechty for a power-play tally, but Priceton stormed back with Pozaric assisting Mitrovic (2:47, man-up) prior to depositing an even-strength score with 1:47 until halftime to deadlock to squads at six-all.

The final minute saw three goals put up in under 60 seconds as Larsen delivered a natural goal for the Bruins with 56 seconds left prior to Logan McCarroll (33 seconds) and Yurian Quinones (five seconds, man-up) converting for back-to-back Princeton tallies to allow the Tigers to enter halftime clinging to an 8-7 lead.  LeSieur assisted on Quinones’ go-ahead goal.

However, UCLA refused to go down without a fight as Kenney lined in an equalizer 1:25 into the third quarter to square the teams at eight-all with 6;35 on the clock.

Giorgio Alessandria cushioned the Bruins’ margin to 10-8 with 4:30 left in the third quarter by converting on a helper by Kenney.  Down by a pair, Princeton countered as JP Ohl rifled in a shot at 4:09 to shrink the gap back to one at 10-9, but Kenney assisted Larsen at 1:10 for another Bruins’ power-play marker to return UCLA’s lead back to a pair at 11-9.

Princeton attempted to set the stage for a fourth quarter rally as George Caras put away an assist from Mitrovic for a man-up goal with 33 seconds remaining in the third quarter to shrink the Tigers’ deficit down to 11-10 with eight minutes of regulation action left to play.

Killion balanced the scoreboard with 6:52 left in the fourth quarter by depositing an assist from Gavin Molloy, but Kenney once again factored by assisting Vergara for another man-up goal with 6:08 left in regulation to put UCLA ahead to stay at 12-11.

Alessandria cushioned the lead to 13-11 at 4:08 prior to Liechty connecting with Larsen for a man-up goal with 3:09 remaining to stake UCLA to a 14-12 scoreboard advantage.

Alessandria struck against at 2:41 off an assist from Liechty to make it 15-12 prior to Frederico Juca Carsalada putting away a shot with 45 seconds remaining to make it a 16-12 game. 

Both teams dented the twine once more in the final half minute as Ohl buried an assist from Killion on the power-play with 31 seconds left prior to Griggs aiding his own cause by lobbing in a shot with five seconds left for the 17-13 final score.

For UCLA, Kenney led the way with one goal, eight assists and two steals to factor in nine of the Bruins 17 scores.  Carsalade (one goal, one assist), Vergara (two goals), Carson (one goal), Larsen (four goals), Sherlock (three goals), Liechty (one goal, two assists), Griggs (one goal, one assist) and Allessandria (three goals) added offense for the UCLA in support of an eight save effort with four steals by Griggs in cage.

Across the tank, Maloney (three goals), Mitrovic (two goals, one assist), Ohl (two goals), Pozaric (two goals, two assists), Killion (one goal, two assists), Caras (one goal), Quinones (one goal), McCarroll (one goal), LeSieur (two assists), Rotenberg (one assist) and Molloy (one assist) combined for Princeton’s offense.  Kristof Kovacs took the loss in cage with six saves and 15 goals allowed prior to Mitrovic allowing two goals with a steal in 1:52 of playing time between the pipes.

The loss drops Princeton into a tie with No. 1 the University of Southern California – which fell by a 10-9 count in the other semifinal to No. 2 the University of California – for Third Place in the final NCAA Championship standings.

Princeton – which garners its third Top Three finish at the NCAA Championship to become the all-time most successful Eastern program in the history of the event – garners the ninth Top Three mark by a Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA)/Mid-Atlantic Water Polo Conference (MAWPC)/Northeast Water Polo Conference (NWPC) institution at the NCAA Men’s Water Polo Championship.

Since the 2016 championship, a Third Place game has not been contested as both teams which are defeated in the semifinals tie for Third Place in the current NCAA Championship format. 

In the history of the NCAA Championship, Harvard University (2016), the University of Massachusetts (1999), the United States Naval Academy (2007), Princeton (2009, 2011, 2023), Queens College (1997, 2002) and St. Francis College Brooklyn (2012) rate as the East Coast institutions to claim Third Place at the NCAA Championship.  Harvard’s Third Place finish was the lone decision under the current NCAA Championship format prior to Princeton’s success this year as the Crimson defeated Bucknell University (13-12 W OT) and the University of California-Davis (16-15 W OT) prior to falling to USC (19-4 L) in the quarterfinals at the 2016 championship. 

The prior Third Place finishes came in four-team championship fields with Massachusetts (1999, 12-9 W vs. University of California-San Diego, 1999), Navy (7-6 W vs. Loyola Marymount University, 2007), Princeton (6-5 W vs. Loyola Marymount, 2009; 9-7 W vs. UC-San Diego, 2011), Queens (5-3 W vs. University of California-Davis, 1997; 6-5 W OT vs. UC-San Diego, 2002) and St. Francis Brooklyn (14-8 W vs. United States Air Force Academy, 2012) capturing Third Place games.

Collegiate Water Polo Association