It all comes down to this: California vs. Southern California for the water polo national championship.
The two teams had slightly different roads to get here. The Bears, after a 20-4 season, took down Pomona-Pitzer 16-6 in the first play-in game of the NCAA tournament, then handed UCLA its third loss of the year in a 9-8 OT win over the Bruins.
In the other semifinal, the Trojans matched up with underdog Harvard and cruised past the Crimson 19-4.
Now, the rivals look to continue their national dominance. USC is gunning for its 10th national title, while California seeks its 14th. Follow along below for score updates, analysis and reactions.
Here’s a recap of California’s tough overtime win that got them in the national championship game:
Cal squeaks past UCLA in overtime to advance to title game
BERKELEY, Calif. — With three key players on the bench, teammates searching for every bit of energy they could and a seasoned opponent staring back from across the pool, the Cal men’s water polo team had every built-in excuse it could ask for in the final moments of its NCAA semifinal game against UCLA.
This time, the Bears were ready to author a much happier ending to the story.
A big swing of the left arm by Conor Neumann proved decisive as Cal battled the defending NCAA champions to the bitter end and pulled out a 9-8 overtime victory at an electric Spieker Aquatics Complex. With the victory, Cal advances to the national championship game where the Bears will square off with No. 1-ranked USC. That match will begin Sunday at 3 p.m. in Berkeley.
After going back and forth in the first half, Cal (22-4) took control early in the fourth quarter. Goals by Luca Cupido, Farrel South and Johnny Hooper put the Bears up 7-4 and seemed to have UCLA (25-3) on the ropes.
The Bruins weren’t going to let their NCAA title defense go quietly. Goals by Ryder Roberts, Alex Roelse and Warren Snyder evened the score at 7 and Chancellor Ramirez added his own to move UCLA into the lead with 3:57 left in the period.
Neumann was the one to respond for the Bears. A shot that hit the crossbar and ricocheted in tied the score at 8 just 23 seconds after the Bruins had seemingly taken the lead and the momentum.
That’s where the score stood all the way to the end of regulation, with Cal goalkeeper Lazar Andric and a fierce Cal defense helping to stymie the Bruins at seemingly every turn. Neither team found the net in the first overtime, leaving three more minutes to decide who would play in the national title game.
The Cal team that got back in the pool for the final period lacked several key components to the Bears’ season-long puzzle. With seniors Farrel South and Chandler Jarrels as well as junior Nicholas Carniglia all sitting out due to ejection, several of Cal’s other mainstays had logged heavy minutes just to get to the final overtime period. Cupido even took a spell as a two-meter defender, something he hadn’t had to do all year.
Fatigue gave way to joy in just a few short minutes. Cal got a power-play chance and, after working the ball around, Neumann lined up a clear angle to the net, firing just to the right of MPSF Player of the Year Garrett Danner for the cross-cage goal. That left 55 seconds on the clock and, after a UCLA shot ricocheted out, Andric put an end to the proceedings with a final save that allowed Cal to run out the clock on the win.
“That’s a championship team for a reason, a team that went on an ungodly run of wins for a reason,” Cal head coach Kirk Everist said. “You were going to have to just rip it out of their hands and, even when we were able to get a lead [this] season, they’d find a way to come back and get back in the game and they did that again tonight. Our team just kept battling and battling. We were down a lot of players, down to 10 at the end, and I thought that was just a really gutsy performance by them. But right back at UCLA too. It was a gutsy performance by them. They came back and never gave up like I would expect a championship-level team to do.”
Cal’s ability to get scoring from several different places showed on Saturday. Freshman Safak Simsek scored a pair of big goals in the third period while Neumann also scored two and South, Cupido, Odysseas Masmanidis, Vassilis Tzavaras and Hooper contributed one apiece. The win also gets the Bears over a significant hurdle with a UCLA team that has consistently edged Cal by small margins over the past few seasons.
“We’ve had a lot of close games with them, including last year, where they were one-goal games that came down to the last couple seconds and we always came out on the bottom,” Neumann said. “Me and Lazar haven’t beaten them in our three years here until tonight. Really, our fight was what brought us all the way there. We had a couple guys out and the rest of us fought harder because we knew we were down and we needed to bring it home for them. A lot of them were seniors, and we wanted to get one more game for them.”
Andric was his usual brilliant self in the cage, turning away several point-blank opportunities throughout the match. He would finish with 16 saves, but the defense also played a huge role in the victory with a great effort in front of the senior goalkeeper.
Cal now turns its attention to a Trojans squad that carries a 24-1 record into the national title game. That one blemish came in Berkeley though, as the Bears beat USC 10-8 in the semifinals of the Mountain Pacific Invitational on Sept. 24.
“We are tired, but I’ll say we were tired from losing close games,” Andric said. “We’re not tired anymore. We’re ready for tomorrow.”