Dec. 5, 2009

Championship Preview: Crosstown Rivals Square Off In Dream Matchup

By Jon Marks
Special to NCAA.com

PRINCETON, N.J.— Overtime.

No matter what the sport, the emotions are still the same.  You’ve played your heart out until the final buzzer goes off and yet there’s nothing resolved.

So you keep playing.

Southern California neighbors ULCA and Loyola Marymount each hoped for a lucky break in overtime at  Princeton’s DeNunzio Pool and a NCAA water polo semifinals victory.

The Bruins’ Cole Consani finally settled matters with a goal with 37 seconds left in overtime to lift UCLA to a 9-8 victory and a date with top-seed USC in Sunday’s NCAA water polo finals.

Never a doubt, right?

“I talked to them this morning about having a close game being good,” said UCLA coach Adam Wright, who couldn’t breathe a sigh of relief until goalie Chay Lapin blocked LMU’s final shot at the buzzer.  “But today was a little closer than I like.”

That didn’t surprise Marymount coach John Loughran, whose 19-8 club was playing in its third straight Final Four and scared Stanford in last year’s semis  before falling at the end.

“This is worse,” he said. “Because it was overtime.

“We knew it would be a big challenge.  The last time we played them at our pool (Oct. 22) we lost 10-5.  But today our guys were in there challenging until the end.’’

That won’t lessen the pain, though.

“Because we’ve been in this tournament three years we knew what to expect,” said Tibor Forai, who led LMU’s attack with four goals, while Ikaika Aki scored twice. ``The only reason we lost was because luck was on their side.’’

While the 23-6 Bruins wouldn’t quite agree, they knew they’d been in a battle. Wright feels it’ll work to their advantage vs. USC, the Bruins having split their four previous meetings with the 25-2 Trojans.

“I think it helps,” said Wright, who’ll go for the title in only his second year at the helm. “We had to deal with adversity right from the beginning. This good for us.’’

It didn’t seem so good when the Lions roared off to an early 4-2 start by early in the second period, before the Bruins got the equalizer on Scott Davidson’s second of five goals just one second before halftime.

“I always say as a coach when it’s done to you, those are backbreakers,” Wright said. “If we don’t hit there were down at the half. Those goals were critical.’’

The second one, ironically, came when Clinton Jorth also beat the clock with a second left in the third, sending UCLA to the final period with a 7-5 lead.

“They did the same thing last weekend,” said Loughran, whose resilient club erased that deficit in the fourth on Forai’s goal with 3:34 left, knotting it 8-8. “They shoot with confidence and play smart water polo.”

With tension building, the score remained that way through regulation, though the first three-minute overtime period and deep into the second.  Loyola thought it had the lead when a Forai shot skimmed the crossbar but failed to cross the line.

Through it all both goalies continually came up big.

“I feel I’m in a whole different world,” said Loyola’s Andy Stevens.  “I never really felt any pressure the entire game. “I just had a smile on my face and was having fun. When you do that the pressure is kind of erased.’’

It’s a good pressure said Lapin. Especially after Consani finally freed himself and beat Stevens from point blank range for the game winner.  Now it’s a rubber game vs. USC with everything at stake.

``That’s the icing on the cake,’’ Lapin said. ``I wouldn’t want it any other way.’’

Except, perhaps, no overtime this time.