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Tense NCAA Men’s Water Polo Title Match Sees Cal Claim Championship With 13-12 Win Over USC

Dec 5, 2021

WESTWOOD, CALIF. — In a dramatic 2021 NCAA title match that featured 10 ties and five lead changes, the USC men's water polo team were edged out by a last-minute goal by California. The Golden Bears' took the lead with 28 ticks to go, and the Trojans' last-ditch effort was blocked to avert overtime and see Cal claim the 2021 national championship with a 13-12 decision today at Spieker Aquatics Center in Westwood, Calif. It was USC's 16th NCAA final appearance in 17 consecutive trips to the tournament, with USC finishing the year at 18-3 overall.

At the close of the event, USC had Hannes Daube, Jacob Mercep and Ashworth Molthen named to the NCAA All-Tournament First Team, and Nic Porter was named to the NCAA All-Tournament Second Team.

The epic battle began with USC drumming up a 2-0 lead on crafty goals from Hannes Daube and Jacob Mercep. The whistle blew in favor of a Cal 5-meter penalty shot moments later — the first of three penalties for the Golden Bears — to get Cal on the board with 3:20 on the clock in the first frame. The Bears would strike out of set next, and then converted on a late 6-on-5 to go up 3-2 by the close of the first. In the second, however, USC fired back, with Ashworth Molthen lofting in a picture-perfect off-speed lob to equalize. Another Cal 2-meter attack followed, but USC would get back on top when Tom McGuire rifled in a crosscage blast before another Molthen fake-and-fire to get USC ahead 5-4. Another Cal 5-meter penalty shot came next, though, locking it up at 5-5. Molthen made it a first-half hat trick with a rocket to the upper 90 for a 6-5 USC advantage, but the Bears made good on a 6-on-5 chance next, and it was all even again at 6-6 for halftime. 

In the third, Cal clawed ahead again with an early strike, but USC maneuvered its way to a two-goal lead with three straight scores. Chris Sturtevant sizzled in his first goal, and then Daube went back-to-back with big blasts that had USC on top 9-77 with 4:25 on the clock in the third. Again, Cal fought back, knocking in another 6-on-5 score and then delivering the equalizer at 9-9 with 1:23 to go in the third. A Nic Porter save to wrap the frame kept things snarled up. 

In the fourth, USC's Wyatt Barker went big, punching up big goals out of set around yet another Cal 5-meter penalty score to get USC ahead 11-10 with 7:11 on the clock. After a defensive stretch, Cal broke through with a power play goal to lock things up 11-11 with 3:00 to go in regulation. Not 30 seconds later, USC's Jake Ehrhardt ripped in the go-ahead goal for USC at 2:29, netting a 12-11 lead for the Trojans. A nearside strike from Cal leveled it again with 2:12 to go, and then Cal found an advantage with a goal as teams pulled even on a 6-on-5, going up 13-12 with 28 ticks to go. USC would earn a 6-on-5 with six seconds to go, looking to force OT with a goal, but the Trojans' final attempt would get knocked down by a Cal defender to preserve the championship win for the Golden Bears.

- With three goals today, Hannes Daube scored in his seventh straight game and team-best 19th game this season.
- In four years as a Trojan, Jacob Mercep scored 199 career goals — team-high 47 this season — to finish ranked No. 4 all-time at USC in scoring.
- In four years as a Trojan, goalie Nic Porter collected 671 career saves to finish ranked No 4 all-time in saves at USC.
- This was USC's 17th NCAA final appearance in the past 19 seasons and 24th all-time.
- It was USC's third straight trip to the NCAA Tournament under head coach Marko Pintaric.
- USC is now 1-6 against Cal in NCAA finals. The Trojans beat the Bears in the 2010 title match.

California 13, USC 12
USC   2 - 4 -  3 - 3 = 12
CAL   3 - 3 - 3 - 4 = 13

USC — Hannes Daube 3, Ashworth Molthen 3, Wyatt Barker 2, Jacob Mercep, Tom McGuire, Chris Sturtevant, Jake Ehrhardt.
CAL — Max Casabella 4, Roberto Valera 3, Jack Deely 2, Nikolaos Papanikolaou 2, George Avakian, Nikos Delagrammatikas.

SAVES: Nic Porter (USC) 8, Adrian Weinberg (CAL) 15.