The college water polo season will end Sunday afternoon the same way the last one did. And the one before that — in fact, the same way the last 14 seasons ended: with either UCLA or USC playing for the national title.
But for just the second time since 2010, USC will be making the trip alone after UCLA, the two-time defending national champion, was upset by California, 9-8, in overtime in Saturday’s NCAA semifinals.
In the first semifinal, top-ranked USC blitzed Harvard, 19-4, to set up a rematch with the only team that has beaten the Trojans this season.
Playing in California’s home pool at the Spieker Aquatics Complex, UCLA (25-3) was stymied all evening by goalkeeper Lazar Andric, falling behind, 7-4, early in the final period of regulation before rallying behind goals from Ryder Roberts, Alex Roelse, Warren Snyder and Chancellor Ramirez to take a one-goal lead with less than four minutes to play.
But the second-ranked Bruins couldn’t hold it. Conor Neumann tied the score on a power-play goal 23 seconds later to force overtime. Neumann then scored the goal the ended UCLA’s season on another power play, with 55 seconds left in the second three-minute extra period, giving third-ranked California (22-4) its first win over UCLA since 2012, a span of 10 games.
“Hopefully everybody realized that was a pretty special game,” UCLA Coach Adam Wright said. “A lot of teams break at 7-4 in the fourth quarter. What we were able to do is not only get ourselves back in the game [but] then put ourselves in a position ultimately to get into overtime and win. That’s just the character of this team.”
A team that played its last game together Saturday since the Bruins’ roster includes eight seniors. One of them is Roberts, a two-time national champion who wanted one more game.
“Hopefully with time I can put it in perspective what this has accomplished,” Roberts said as he choked back tears. “Hopefully it doesn’t take too long to realize what this group has accomplished. Because it was truly great.”
For USC, its semifinal win was its 16th in a row. But junior James Walters said that won’t mean much if the top-ranked Trojans don’t win one more.
“The excitement is crazy right now,” said Walters, who has gone to two NCAA finals but has yet to win one. “We’re ready to avenge ourselves.”
USC and California have met twice this season, with the Bears winning, 10-8, in September and the Trojans taking the rematch by the same score in October. USC (24-1) warmed up for the rubber game of the series in an easy win over 11th-ranked Harvard (27-7).
With Thomas Dunstan, Marin Dasic and Lachlan Edwards each scoring two first-half goals, the Trojans were up, 11-0, at the intermission.
USC responded by pulling its starting goalkeeper — replacing junior McQuin Baron with redshirt freshman Simon Wu — but by then the rout was secure with USC winning by at least 15 goals for the ninth time this season. Eleven players scored to help send USC on to a final Coach Jovan Vavic warned won’t necessarily be a replay of either of the first two games..
“Both teams had two weeks to get ready for this [the Final Four],” he said “Two weeks is a long period of time. You can’t change your basic tactics. But you can do a lot.”