On Saturday afternoon, No. 9 Princeton men’s water polo (27–5 overall, 10–0 NWPC) won in a nail-biting overtime thriller against No. 16 Fordham (26–8, 16–0 Mid-Atlantic Water Polo). The win advanced the Tigers to the second round of the NCAA Water Polo Championships.
The victory wasn’t as easy as head coach Dustin Litvak would have hoped for, but sophomore utility Rozo Pozaric still managed to score the winning goal at the end of the second overtime period.
“Fordham played great and presented many challenges for us. We did not do ourselves any favors in some moments where we could have gained some momentum and extended our lead,” Litvak told The Daily Princetonian. “We turned the ball over far too many times giving them extra possessions. All of this continued to give them hope and confidence.”
Besides sending Princeton to the next round, this win also marked a program record 27 wins and tied a program record for 13 straight wins. The last time the Tigers had lost a contest was against Pepperdine on Oct. 18.
The game opened with Pozaric winning the opening sprint. Prior to the game, he was 86–8 on sprints this season. On Saturday, he won all six sprints during the game.
After winning the sprint, Pozaric also scored the first goal of the game for the Tigers, his 60th goal of the season. The Fordham Rams were quick to respond with defender Jacopo Parrella scoring his 79th of the season to tie the game at one.
Junior attacker Pierce Maloney and sophomore defender Vladan Mitrovic would score the next two goals for Princeton to give them a 3–1 lead. The Rams would respond with two quick goals on back-to-back possessions to tie it at three with 2:50 left to go in the first period.
A beautifully executed 6-on-5 by the Tigers led to a goal by junior center George Caras. The quarter would end with a 4–3 Princeton advantage.
After three scoreless minutes to start the second period, Fordham driver George Papanikolaou would tie the game at four with five minutes remaining in the half. The Tigers scored the next two goals with senior attacker Keller Maloney joining his brother Pierce on the scoresheet, and Mitrovic scoring his second of the game.
First-year utility Logan McCarroll drew a five meter penalty for the Tigers and handed it off to Keller Maloney who would convert the penalty with ease. Fordham, however, would find a late goal before the break, bringing the score to 7–5.
“[Fordham is] an extremely physical team, and I think that, along with some playoff nerves, made the game closer than it otherwise should have been. To beat a team like USC, we need to be a lot sharper,” Keller Maloney told the ‘Prince’.
In the second half, the teams had a defensive showdown, putting the scoring at a standstill. After three scoreless minutes, first-year JP Ohl earned his second assist of the game, this time finding senior utility Ryan Neapole. Neapole’s goal gave Princeton a comfortable 8–5 lead, its largest of the game. Ohl has 36 assists on the season for the Tigers.
Fordham didn’t give in easily, though, and had soon cut the lead to one at 9–8. With 5:45 remaining in the final period, the Rams drew a five meter penalty. Just when it looked like the game would be tied, first-year goalie West Temkin made a crucial save to maintain the Princeton lead.
With 23 seconds remaining in the game though, defender Luca Silvestri scored for the Rams to tie the game at nine. This was the closest Fordham had gotten since it was tied 4–4 early in the second period. The Rams defense then prevailed to deny Princeton a potential game winner and forced the two teams into overtime.
The first overtime period saw Keller Maloney become the second Tiger of the game to score a hat trick, giving Princeton a 10–9 lead. Fordham head coach Brian Bacharach and his team did not back down, scoring in the second overtime period to tie the game at 10.
Pozaric then drew a crucial exclusion for the Tigers, giving them a man up advantage for the final 16 seconds of the second period. With the clock ticking down, Pozaric scored the game winner for the Tigers and gave Princeton an 11–10 overtime win.
“It was an amazing feeling, our offense on the right side did a great job pulling [Fordham to their own side], leaving the right of the goal open for me to score. We are all very happy about the win and excited that we get to compete for the national championship,” Pozaric told the ‘Prince.’
Princeton will now advance to the next round of the NCAA Water Polo Championships and will now play Southern California on Thursday, Dec. 1 at 8 p.m.
“USC is a great team but our season so far showed us that we can play a close game with every team and win. Our goal is to win the national championship and we are going for it,” Pozaric added.
The USC Trojans are currently ranked No. 1 by the The Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) and No. 3 by the NCAA.
“We are going out to California not to play, but to win,” Keller Maloney told the ‘Prince.’ “No East Coast team has ever made the finals, but we don’t shy away from this fact. We are hungrier than ever, and I absolutely believe that this team will shock the water polo world next week. When we do, none of us will be surprised.”
The Trojans are 18–6 on the season and have been in the NCAA tournament for 18 straight seasons. They hold 10 NCAA Water Polo titles. While the task ahead is not an easy one for the Tigers, Litvak said he thinks his team is up to the task.
“We recognize that many people will pencil in USC for the semifinals already, but that’s not of our concern. We can only control how we prepare and how we play,” Litvak said. “The guys have nicknamed this team the ‘Garden State Warriors’ and we are proud to represent our university, the alums, the fans and the great state of New Jersey. We will be ready.”
Hayk Yengibaryan is a contributor to the Sports section at the ‘Prince.’
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