Freshman Kat Klass and her Stanford women's water polo teammates performed like champions in a pressure-packed environment. The Cardinal remain champions despite dropping an 8-7 decision to top-ranked and undefeated USC in the NCAA championship game at UCLA on Sunday.
Klass scored twice in a frantic final 52 seconds, but the Cardinal was denied a third consecutive national title when Stephania Haralabidis scored for USC with six seconds left.
Haralabidis, a sophomore, may have played the greatest individual game ever against Stanford. She scored five goals and was a big reason, defensively, why the Cardinal was limited to three goals over the first three periods.
Stanford and the Trojans gave water polo fans an amazing final 52 seconds, a reflection of why the two teams have combined to win the last seven national titles.
Down two with 0:52 showing on the clock following a Brianna Daboub goal, Stanford coach John Tanner called timeout and drew up a quick strike for the Cardinal (23-6).
Gurpreet Sohi received a long pass from goalkeeper Julia Hermann and left it in the middle for a driving Klass. The freshman fired it home in a play that took five seconds from start to finish and gave Stanford life.
"Honestly, at that point, your instinct just kicks in," Sohi said. "I wasn't thinking about a lot. I got a great pass from our goalie on my right hand,. I looked at the cage and then at Kat and I knew what to do."
Up 7-6, USC (26-0) went inside to two meters, but Stanford's defense swarmed and netted the takeaway. The Cardinal called its final timeout with 16 seconds remaining. Klass was fouled outside five meters, stepped back to seven and skipped her throw past USC's freshman goalkeeper Amanda Longan, a raw talent who will only get better, to even the score, 7-7, with just 11 seconds to go.
"I loved the way our team performed and I loved how we kept fighting back," Tanner said. "Their spirit was unreal. Just by force of will, to score those last two goals. Both of those plays have not always gone smoothly, but when we most needed them they were flawless. That speaks volumes to the character of this team and to their resilience."
USC took possession and Haralabidis rifled home the winner from the right side, 10-meters out. The junior scored five of the Trojans' eight goals and was named the tournament's MVP. She was joined on the All-NCAA tournament first team by Stanford's Jamie Neushul and Julia Hermann, while Jordan Raney landed on the second team.
Stanford scored once in each of the first, second and third quarters, but unleashed four in the fourth as it fought for what would have been its third straight national title and fifth in the last six years. Down 5-3 entering the final frame, Madison Berggren's lob to the far post with 5:06 left pulled the Cardinal within one.
Brigitta Games was successful from in close on USC's next possession to give the Trojans some slight breathing room, but Sohi drew an exclusion at 3:35 and Raney converted 15 seconds later when she inched in from the left and went bar down to make it 6-5. The teams traded stops over the next 2:30, setting up the frantic final minute.
Berggren netted her first of the day early in the third when she took a pass from Neushul and fired it to the near post to tie things up, 3-3.
Sophomore Shannon Cleary scored first for Stanford at 5:19 in the opening quarter and her classmate Katie Dudley tallied the Cardinal's second-quarter score in the 6-on-5 with 12 seconds left in the period.
Hermann made 11 saves and averaged more than 10 in the weekend's three games en route to being voted the best goalkeeper at the event. With records that date to 2001, her 244 saves are the most for Stanford in the past 15 years.
Stanford, which has never finished lower than third at the national championship tournament and is the only team to appear in all 16 since its inception in 2001, is 33-11 all-time in NCAA postseason play.