Luka Saponjic could have saved the game.
With 27 seconds left in the final overtime period of Saturday’s 7-6 loss, the senior attacker posted up close to the goal with the ball in his left hand. From his position Saponjic had a chance to score.
It was the MPSF semifinal match and the score stubbornly sat at 7-6, with No. 1 UCLA in the lead. In the Spieker Aquatics Center in Los Angeles, a three-goal tear in the final minute of regulation resurrected the No. 3 Cal men’s water polo team from a 6-3 death sentence. As the time in regulation ran out, the Bears (22-4) practiced what they preached for the last month: They controlled their own destiny to salvage the game and their season.
“We wanted to finish early, to score early,” National Player of the Year Ivan Rackov said. “We jumped into the game thinking we’re going to win it for sure. Everyone was too fired up. ”
Cal came back from the dead, but the Bruins played with heaven already in sight.
UCLA (23-4) limited Cal to only two successful power plays and never once trailed throughout the contest. The Bruins’ Paul Reynolds broke the 6-6 tie halfway through the first overtime period, and held Cal scoreless in overtime — until Sapnojic’s final shot.
“Offensively, we couldn’t find any rhythm,” Rackov said. “We couldn’t find the hole in the cage. Every shot either hit the bar or went straight into the goalie.”
Saponjic’s arm arced back and the ball left his hand. The shot sailed high — too high. The ball bounced off the post and back into the arms of a UCLA player. The clock ran out. The Bears lost.
Cal started off the tournament with promise, well on its way to accomplishing its biggest goal of the season: reach the national championship. The Bears had to win two consecutive games at the MPSF tournament to secure the at-large bid.
The Bears’ 15-9 rout of seventh-seed UC Irvine on Friday was reminiscent of gaping point margins that filled the win-heavy first half of the season. The team had its first victory; one more and it was as good as qualified for NCAAs. The team was still solidly in control of its fate.
But the UCLA loss wrenched away whatever security Cal held.
“We had our destiny in our hands,” coach Kirk Everist said. “And we let that one slip away in overtime.”
The Bruins went on to top No. 1 USC, 10-9, in a sudden death victory Sunday afternoon, capturing the automatic NCAA bid that came along with the conference title.
For the Bears, the outcome of the conference final was the worst-case scenario. They were no longer in control of their destiny, and the race for the at-large bid became “a conversation” between Cal and USC, according to Everist. The fate of their season was in someone else’s hands.
But Cal still had to play for third in the tournament. The team returned to the pool on Sunday afternoon to overtake No. 4 Stanford, 8-7.
“We came back, we knew it was important,” Saponjic said. “We played better than (against UCLA), and we won. But it wasn’t enough.”
The final blow came shortly after the UCLA-USC decision: The Trojans, with the better overall record, received the at large bid. Cal’s season was over.
“Every single player wanted this so badly,” Rackov said. “We kept thinking, ‘This is our year.’”