San Francisco, CA – The straightforward, lightly sympathetic headline in the Recordnet Sunday reads Pacific’s water polo title try falls short in OT, a perfectly fine short summary of Sunday’s epic match in which the USC Trojans succeeded in earning a sixth straight NCAA championship over the spent fireworks show that is the Pacific Tigers. But no such short tagline can convey the anguish and deflation, the shared sense of an opportunity lost that permeated Avery Aquatic Center yesterday, and not just among the numerous and raucous Pacific fans.
USC won that match 12-11 in overtime and deserves every ounce of credit for their gutsy (there’s a more accurate, less appropriate word for it), confident comeback in which they overcame a two-goal deficit with three minutes remaining in regulation time. But this was Pacific’s game to win no matter how difficult the analysis may be. And, as a widely respected international coach told us after the outcome, “they were a little bit afraid to win the game.” That opinion is hard to refute.
The telling sequence of events: tied at eight halfway through the fourth quarter the Trojans earned a penalty shot. This is when USC will begin its charge is the sense in the crowd. But goalkeeper Alex Malkis, Pacific’s emotional foundation, stoned it, eliciting a deafening, frenzied response from the crowd. The ensuing counterattack produced its own penalty shot, which the Tigers converted to nearly the same cheers. A possession later, the strutting Balazs Erdelyi brought the game to its essence, letting loose with a simple, defiant laser from eight meters that produced a euphoric two-goal lead for UOP.
Three and a half minutes remained as the Trojans calmly re-took possession. But Tiger fan frenzy aside one thought pervaded: it’s too much time, too long to expect the newcomers to withstand the USC assault.
And so it played out, methodically, painfully. The Pacific offense became tentative. The Trojans response was mature and unspectacular, belaying the accumulated experience of a defending champion. They tied the match at 10 with a steal and counterattack goal by Croatian Ivan Krstic. Then another by Jeremy Davie to take the lead still with 2:46 remaining. Erdelyi responded with his own, half a minute remaining, to even the match. Regulation time expired, Malkis grinning his way to the pool edge as his team prepared for extra time and even the most partisan fans cheering for more.
But the Tiger attack couldn’t match the confidence of its goalkeeper in overtime. Both sides held scoreless for the first period, Pacific wasted a golden chance in the second when an Alex Obert power play shot from close range sailed over the cage. On the other end the coach’s son, Nicola Vavic, who nearly matched Erdelyi in swagger, calmly nailed yet another lefty zinger with just over two minutes remaining to give his team the lead. Plenty of time, still, for the Tigers to respond.
With less than 40 seconds remaining, the ball in the possession of Pacific’s most obvious weapon, Erdely played to draw the perimeter foul and one more chance to buttress his legacy. But the spectacular Hungarian, maybe overconfident, cheekily left the ball too close to the defender, Zach Lucas, who tapped it away to himself while Erdely desperately chased him unsuccessfully to nab it back.
With that mundane steal Pacific’s historic stab at the title was done.
The tears and grimaces of the Tiger athletes acknowledged what most in the seats already knew: this was their chance. It was a superb year, historic as has been written many times. But whereas USC and its fellow “big four” programs always seem to reload, it won’t be nearly so easy for this squad.
Pacific came as close as any team in half a decade of ending the Trojans’ streak, and did so in one of the great collegiate water polo title matches ever. But even a wrenching, entertaining one-goal loss to the champs is not the same as a title. And it will be damn hard for them to return to the same spot in 2014.