Cal men’s water polo falls to No. 1 UCLA in final of MPSF Tournament

Karen Chow/File

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Three hundred sixty-five days had passed. It had been 8,760 hours since the No. 1 Bruins (28-0) had lost a men’s water polo game, and the No. 3 Bears (23-6) were close to breaking the streak. With five seconds left at the end of the second overtime, sophomore Luca Cupido held the ball, poised to fire a final shot at UCLA keeper Garrett Danner to tie the score, 12-12. His shot, however, didn’t reach the back of the net. The record remained unblemished.

The road to the championship’s final five seconds was a bit up and down for Cupido and the Bears. Their Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament run started against the No. 6 Gauchos on Friday afternoon.

Although Cal got off to a slow first-quarter start, going up only 2-0, it was able to pick it up in the second and extend its lead to 6-1 with goals from Cupido and freshmen Johnny Hooper and Odysseas Masmanidis. With the lead further extended to 8-2 at the end of the third quarter, the Bears were able to cruise to an easy win against the Gauchos, advancing them to the semifinal match against Pacific.

Having lost to Pacific, 11-10, on Nov. 7 in its home pool, Cal knew it would have a fight ahead of it in the MPSF semifinal.

Coming out of the first quarter with a one-goal lead would prove invaluable for Cal, as the teams came out neck and neck in the second and third quarters, each scoring three goals throughout the course of the two quarters. Thanks to a goal from Masmanidis with 1:35 left in the match, the Bears were able to extend their lead to secure the win, 7-5, against the No. 2-ranked Tigers.

The victory allowed Cal to move on to the finals against UCLA and proved that the Bears’ defense is a force to be reckoned with. Although the Tigers had 12 power-play chances, they were unable to capitalize on any of them, thanks to aggressive six-on-five defense and a career-high 20 saves from junior goalkeeper Lazar Andric.

Cal came into the final on Sunday confident, despite having already lost three matches this season to the Bruins. The Bears were also already at a slight disadvantage because of a red card earned by Cal head coach Kirk Everist in the game against Pacific, which prevented him from coaching his Bears in the final.

“We work hard all year and prepare during the week, and the guys know what to do, and they know our game plan,” Everist said. “I’m a firm believer that on game day, coaches manage the game, but the players play.”

The Bears came out with the first goal from Mulcahy on a power play and played strong perimeter defense but slowed down throughout the course of the first quarter. Cal ultimately left the quarter down 5-3 to the Bruins.

The game remained close, as the Bears went into the fourth quarter at a 9-7 deficit. Goals from Mulcahy and Masmanidis, however, allowed the Bears to pull back to within one, making the score 10-9 with 4:11 left to play. The defense then locked up on both ends, but Cal was able to come up with a tying goal from Cupido during a power play with 52 seconds left.

Fouls committed by the Bears in overtime allowed the Bruins to capitalize on power-play opportunities and placed them at a 12-10 advantage with 1:38 left. It looked like all was lost, but a goal by Thomas Carroll with 33 seconds left brought Cal within reaching distance of UCLA. A careless foul by the Bruins with five seconds to play gifted the Bears with a final chance, but they were unable to convert and ultimately fell to the Bruins once again.

Although the tournament resulted in only a second-place finish, the Bears still gained a berth into the NCAA Championships as the overall No. 2 seed, extending their season and perhaps providing Cal with a final opportunity to triumph over the indomitable Bruins.

Sophie Goethals covers men’s water polo. Contact her at [email protected]