Cal freshman Odysseas Masmanidis scored the Bears’ only goal from 2 meters all game with 4:14 remaining in the fourth quarter and then took five seconds before swimming back to half-tank to stare down the defender, letting him know the Bears weren’t going to fall too easily. And despite a strong second-half effort from No. 7 Irvine (11-6, 1-2 MPSF), the No. 3 Bears (16-3, 2-0 MPSF) ended the game on top with a 12-10 victory in their first home game of the season.
The Anteaters had just cut the Bears’ three-goal lead to one at 10-9 with 4:27 remaining in the game. The Bears restarted with a quick pass from sophomore Luca Cupido to senior Colin Mulcahy. He inched the ball forward and left around the 7-meter mark, waiting patiently for Masmanidis to gather position at center. The Anteaters had been double-teaming Cal’s centers all afternoon, preventing the Bears from using their biggest strength — their size.
But not this time. Masmanidis sealed off one defender, who arrived late with his left arm, while at the same time using his body to create space from a second Irvine defender. Mulcahy dumped the ball inside, perfectly placed, one foot in front of Masmanidis’ right hand. In a second, the ball was in the back of the net, a beautiful backhand from 2 meters away from the cage — Cal’s only set goal all game — and Cal had its two-goal cushion back with 4:14 remaining.
“We were very emotional to play our first game at home,” Cupido said. “We had a good start, and then we were trying to rush to get a good lead, but that led us to get in a messy game. Irvine tried to fight back. Fortunately, we figured out a way to win this game, because it is very important to protect the home court.”
The Bears came out firing, with a strong first quarter that ended, 4-2, highlighted by two breakaway goals from freshman Johnny Hooper, who left his defender each time and received a perfect pass from goalie Lazar Andric, finishing calmly both times in one-on-one situations against the Irvine keeper.
“(Hooper) takes calculated risks,” said Cal head coach Kirk Everist. “He starts to put himself in a position to get off, and if the defense doesn’t react to him, you’re not going to catch him. If he gets a step on you, you’re in trouble.”
After going down 7-4 at halftime, the Anteaters responded in the second half with strong physical play on both ends of the pool. The physical nature of the game led to many empty offensive possessions for the Bears, and frustration reached Cal sophomore Nic Carniglia, who committed a hard foul to stop Irvine with 30 seconds remaining in the third, and he was ejected from the game.
“We got caught up in stuff that we didn’t need to, and that put us in scrambling mode towards the end of the game,” Everist said.
After Irvine’s junior driver Lovre Milos scored his second goal of the game to bring the Anteaters to 11-10, Cal failed to convert on a six-on-four opportunity but made up for this poor possession with excellent defense on the next Irvine possession. Junior defender Thomas Carroll picked off an Anteater pass and found a breaking Conor Neumann to seal the win with 1:33 to go.
“It was going to be a physical game — it always is with Irvine,” Everist said. “We got caught up in it a little bit in the fourth quarter and third quarter, and let them back in the game.”
Vikram Muller covers men’s water polo. Contact him at [email protected].