The odds were stacked against USC coming into its NCAA Tournament semifinal match Saturday against Cal. The Trojans lost four of their five meetings against the Bears this season and needed to come up big to make it to the championship game. And they did just that, coming from behind in the final frame for a 12-10 win.
Though this Trojan team is relatively young and inexperienced, the players learned from their past mistakes and defeated Cal by improving their defense, rallying in the fourth quarter and getting contributions from the entire lineup.
“Everyone just stepped up, and it felt like such a cohesive team performance. We’re obviously thrilled with the result,” junior goalie Nic Porter said.
Throughout the entire match, power plays and penalty shots proved to be difference-makers for both sides.
Cal kicked off the game with a penalty shot goal in the first two minutes. The Trojans responded with a power play goal from redshirt freshman driver Chris Agliozzo. USC then took the lead with another power play goal, this time from junior two-meter Jake Ehrhardt. Cal tied it again 2-2 while on the man advantage.
In the second quarter, the Trojans finally scored the first even-strength goal of the game from another blast from Ehrhardt. However, another penalty foul by the Trojans allowed Cal to even the score again. Freshman driver Carson Kranz scored, giving USC a 4-3 lead.
USC had the chance to build upon that lead on a substantial 6-on-4 advantage but were unable to capitalize. This gave Cal a window to catch up and sneak into the lead with two goals, one coming from the power play. With 39 seconds left before halftime, Kranz tied the game 5-5 on the power play, giving way to a clean slate for the second half.
In the third quarter, Ehrhardt launched another shot into the back of the net. Soon after, Cal seemed to pull away slightly after notching three more goals to go up 8-6, the first multi-goal lead of the match. But, another man advantage allowed the Trojans to go into the fourth quarter down only one goal. The power play goal came from Kranz, which landed him his first-career hat trick.
Cal quickly took back its multi-goal lead in the fourth quarter. But with a newfound spark and energy, the Trojans found a way to defeat the Bears with five straight goals.
Ehrhardt, who had just come off a five-goal performance on Thursday, initiated the offensive outpour. Sophomore driver Marcus Longton and senior two-meter Wyatt Barker then took over, contributing two goals each. Porter stonewalled Cal with impressive stop after stop, giving way to the 12-10 victory.
USC will take on UCLA tomorrow for the championship. The crosstown rivals have met five times already this season, and the Trojans won three of the matchups.
“It’s just about going into the game tomorrow with the exact same frame of mind that we came into today,” Porter said. “We were really well mentally prepared and very confident in our gameplan, and we will be again tomorrow. We need to be at our best to get the result we’re after tomorrow.”
The championship begins 2 p.m. tomorrow at Uytengsu Aquatic Center and can be streamed at NCAA.com.