This was finally going to be the UCLA men’s water polo team’s time.
Leading the four-time defending national champions, the USC Trojans, with 3:09 left to play in the NCAA Championship, the Bruins thought they were going to leave USC’s campus on Sunday with an upset victory and their first national title since 2004.
Instead, they left with broken hearts.
After a skip shot from sophomore attacker Daniel Lenhart missed with 47 seconds to play and the score tied at 10 apiece, the Trojans charged down the pool and took the lead on a goal from sophomore driver Kostas Genidounias a mere seven seconds later.
“We actually ran the same play against the same team in the NorCal Tournament in our undefeated season in 2008, and Adam Wright was an assistant coach,” said USC coach Jovan Vavic.
A turnover late in the ensuing UCLA possession sealed the Bruins’ fate ““ a close 11-10 loss.
While the image of the Trojan celebrating their fifth straight NCAA title was particularly painful for the Bruins, the apparent image of a ball resting on the lane line, with 2:25 to play and USC trailing by a goal, might stick with them longer.
“I think about the ball resting on the lane line. Critical moment,” coach Adam Wright said. “Ball resting on the lane line, referee there. I don’t know how the ball’s going to keep moving if it’s not on the lane line, and they score a critical goal.”
The alleged missed out-of-bounds call and what he perceived to be poor, one-sided officiating throughout were particularly unsettling for Wright, the team’s only representative at the postgame press conference.
“I can’t say enough about my guys and what they did today,” Wright said. “We got off to a great start, but it’s a game of momentum, and it can be stopped in many ways.
“Today, the hard part is that it was stopped in an unfortunate way.”
UCLA bucked its trend of starting out slow and had USC off balance with an 8-6 halftime lead. The team said this early offensive surge stemmed from a pregame talk about rising to the occasion.
“(The coaches) told us at the beginning of the game that every player has a day and you just have to be ready to step up when it’s your day,” said senior attacker Bret Lathrope. “I think everybody was ready to step up today and I felt like we did.”
Seven different UCLA players took this talk to heart. They had the Bruins within two and a half minutes away from defeating the Trojans in an NCAA title game for the first time since 1996. But UCLA failed to hold on down the stretch, leaving USC with the opportunity to speculate about extending its streak.
“The men’s team is going to win it again next year,” Vavic said. “Write it down.”
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