BERKELEY, Calif. – It was supposed to be a bigger contest.
No. 3 California (11-1) had dominated No. 2 USC (9-1) in the semifinals and was riding a wave of momentum coming into the championship game of the Mountain Pacific Invitational.
But the energy that helped the Golden Bears past the Trojans less than 20 hours earlier was lacking from the get-go on Sunday, and nowhere was that more visible than on the Bears’ second possession of the game.
On a counterattack, sophomore attacker Johnny Hooper had a one-on-one with goalie Garrett Danner in open space. He rose up to shoot and tried to sneak the ball under Danner’s arms, but the senior sharply dropped down to stifle the typically high-percentage shot and stun Cal’s 2015 MPSF Newcomer of the Year.
No. 1 UCLA (15-0) took the lead soon after, when senior center Gordon Marshall passed the ball into the net as Cal goalie Lazar Andric came out for the steal. The Bruins followed with their most cohesive game of the season to put the Bears away 10-7.
“For the most part, we played the way UCLA wants to play,” said coach Adam Wright. “We didn’t get caught up and engaged for the most part in playing the other team’s game, and that was critical for us.”
Cal has a number of offensive weapons that can impact the game, and all except Hooper, who was ejected from the game for misconduct with a little more than two minutes to go in the first quarter, were on display Sunday.
The Bears drew 11 exclusions but only converted three, in part due to 14 saves from Danner and a defense that held a team that averaged nearly 17 goals per game to just seven.
“I thought today our defense was really good,” Wright said. “Starting in the goal with Garrett obviously, but we had to play a lot of key five-on-sixes. We made a lot of great stops, I don’t even know what their percentage was on five-on-six but we did a nice job there.”
Danner, in his first few games back to his starting role after time off to recover from an illness, totaled 36 saves on the weekend, for an average of about 13 saves per four quarters.
“I felt a little rusty coming into the tournament, but my team played great defense,” Danner said. “Coming into the finals right there we stepped it up, and (I) started to feel a little better. We just have to keep moving from here.”
On the other side of the pool, the Bruins created opportunities with crisp passing around the perimeter and timely drops into the center to draw eight kickouts themselves.
Four different players converted on five man-up opportunities, including redshirt junior attacker Max Irving who had a team-high three goals.
“I just had some open looks,” Irving said. “The guys in center were doing a good job holding positions and getting exclusions, so that really opened up things for me on the outside.”
He also blasted a strong-side shot from near the two-meter line on the left side of the cage past Andric, one of the many times the Bruins took advantage of open windows.
Marshall, who capitalized off Andric’s steal attempt in the first quarter, did the same again in the third. While battling for the ball, he caught a glimpse of the Cal goalie coming out of the cage, and effortlessly lobbed it in to put UCLA up 8-3 at the time.
Now with a record of 15-0, the Bruins are nearly halfway through their season and after this weekend, they have two prime-time victories over top-five teams.
“It lets us know that if we play the way that we’re supposed to play, we can obviously play with anyone,” Irving said. “We knew that going into it, but just getting this win today really solidified that for us.”