Espar scores in third sudden death to secure third national title for USC
BOSTON -- In the longest match in women’s water polo championship game history, Southern California rallied from a 3-0 deficit and defeated Stanford 10-9 in a third sudden-death period to win the 2013 national title.
Head coach Jovan Vavic captured his third NCAA crown with the women’s team since 2004. It also marked the third time in which he has won the championship with both the men and women's teams.
Just 32 seconds into the contest, Stanford freshman Maggie Steffens opened the scoring.
Following strong defensive efforts by both teams, senior Melissa Seidemann doubled the Cardinal lead to cap scoring in the opening frame. Stanford continued its fast start with a goal from Kaley Dodson just 31 seconds into the second quarter.
Down 3-0, USC finally found the back of the net with 6:05 to go in the second. Junior Madeline Rosenthal fired in a pass from classmate Kaleigh Gilchrist.
The Women of Troy and Cardinal traded the next two goals with scores coming from USC senior Nicolina McCall and Stanford sophomore Kiley Neushul.
With 1:09 left in the half, Rosenthal notched her second goal on a man-up opportunity to pull USC within one before halftime.
Senior Kate Baldoni finished the first half with four saves for Stanford. On the other end of the pool, junior Flora Bolonyai racked up eight.
The two squads alternated goals in the second half, with two scores coming from USC junior Hannah Buckling and one from Seidemann.
Both teams came up with critical defensive stops in the last quarter of regulation, including four saves by Bolonyai. However, USC mustered up a pair of goals in the closing two minutes.
Buckling sealed a hat trick with the game-tying goal as 1:56 remained. Trojan freshman Anni Espar delivered the go-ahead score with 45 seconds to go to capture USC’s first lead of the game.
With just 12 seconds left on the scoreboard, sophomore Ashley Grossman ended USC’s three-goal run by sending a shot past Bolonyai at the end of a 6-on-5 opportunity for the equalizer.
The first overtime was a back-and-forth battle. Junior Kelly Mendoza began the scoring just 36 seconds into the frame on an extra-man chance. Steffens followed with her second goal to tie the game at eight. In the second three-minute session, Seidemann notched her third goal of the game before USC’s patience on offense allowed Buckling to deliver her game-high fourth score with just 55 seconds showing on the clock.
In the first sudden death period, neither team was able to record a goal. Deadlocked at nine in the waning moments of the second sudden death, Stanford had a pair of shot attempts ricochet off the crossbar.
It wasn’t until the third sudden death that USC was able to spread the ball around effectively as Espar’s second goal of the day rang off the right post and into the left side of the net to end the match.
“This game was really tough,” Espar said. “I missed a lot of shots too. [Coach Vavic] said it was my time and I trust him, so it was my time. I didn’t want it only for me, but for all my team.”
In a rematch of the 2010 and 2012 national title games, USC defeated two-time defending champion Stanford for the second time in the championship game.
“We got beat by an incredible outside shot,” Stanford head coach John Tanner said. “We played great defense. It was just a spectacular shot. We tip our hats off to Espar.”
The defensive effort in between the pipes was possibly the biggest strengths for both teams. Baldoni finished the game with 11 saves for the Cardinal. Bolonyai was named tournament MVP as she turned away 17 attempts for the Women of Troy.
“The goalie is the most important person in the game,” Vavic said. “[Bolonyai] always steps up in big games.
“We knew Stanford was going to be the team to beat. We needed to believe we could get this job done. It took us quite some time. To win in this fashion, this is going to stay with these players and coaches forever.”