LONG BEACH, Calif. — Fans packed into Ken Lindgren Aquatics Center Saturday night, ready to see the underdog take on the two-time defending champions.
The raucous No. 7 Long Beach State (6-1) crowd disrupted the communication between coach Adam Wright and his Bruins, resulting in a close and hard-fought 8-6 overtime victory.
It didn’t have to be that close, but it was.
“It is a win, and I guess that’s good in the end,” said junior utility Alex Roelse. “But we’re really here to play our type of water polo, and we should be able to do the same thing in any time, any place, in any circumstances, with a loud crowd, with a small crowd and I think tonight we didn’t really show what we can really do.”
The score was knotted at two after one quarter and at three after two, but No. 1 UCLA (11-0) gradually built up a lead in the second half behind junior goalie Aleksandar Ruzic’s career-high 17 saves and lights-out defense.
The Bruins, however, squandered away their three-goal buffer.
Long Beach scored on two consecutive six-on-five possessions and a crossbar-ricochet shot found the back of the net to tie the game with eight seconds left in regulation.
The game-tying goal was the fifth time in the game that the 49ers capitalized on a man-up possession – they failed to score an even-strength goal the entire game.
Attacker Nolan McConnell, who redshirted last year, scored all three of Long Beach’s first half goals– two off six-on-fives and one penalty shot.
“I think it’s impressive that (McConnell) can still show this kind of performance after coming off of Tommy John surgery, I think that’s respectable,” Roelse said. “On the other side, I think it’s really a big part of taking your block.”
Being responsible for blocking was similarly the theme for Wright’s team in Friday’s match against Pepperdine too.
“We rely on the goalie to take his angle, and if we’re not taking our near side block, then he’s overcompensating,” said senior attacker Patrick Fellner. “Then he can let up his angle, which we’re relying on him to. We can’t rely on the goalies as much as we are right now.”
Even without proper field defense, Ruzic was the difference between the win and the loss. He had five of his 17 saves in the fourth quarter.
“We are not doing him any favors out there in front of him, you got to give him a lot of credit,” Wright said. “He’s never been in a situation like this, and every game unfortunately in men’s water polo is do-or-die in a sense. We understand that one game can be the difference, and for him to hang in there and have that kind of performance says a lot.”
In overtime, the 49ers couldn’t keep up with the Bruins’ depth. Wright subbed players in and out extensively in the first half while Long Beach kept its big names in the majority of the game.
Senior attacker Ryder Roberts scored the go-ahead goal with 41 seconds left in the first extra period to put UCLA up 7-6. He was nearly underwater when the defense crashed on him.
The Bruins got an insurance goal soon after when Fellner took off on a counterattack after Roelse stole the ball on an errant pass to center.
“My guy kept swimming down to position one for some reason, and I just took off,” Fellner said. “I looked up, and Roelse gave me the eyes, and I kept swimming. Then he threw me the ball, (I) turned around and I was getting hammered by the goalie and the guard.”
The goalie abandoned the cage to put pressure on Fellner, so the senior threw the ball toward the goal, and it floated in.
The Bruins haven’t been pushed to such a close game with a team outside the top five since their unbeaten streak began in 2014 – after a loss to a similar McConnell-led Long Beach State team in the MPSF tournament.
Part of being two-time defending national champions, though, means every team is looking to be the one to give Wright’s squad its first loss.
“We will see this again for sure, and I think it’ll be important that we went through this,” Wright said.
Email Hull at [email protected] or tweet @michaelchull.