Sacred Heart Prep grad Pallavi Menon tried to pass off before taking the biggest shot of her water polo career. A consummate team player, the senior said she enjoyed watching junior goalie Kate Baldoni celebrate her critical goal more than scoring it.
Menon couldn't get the ball where she wanted, noticed a small opening, even from her awkward angle, and let loose with a goal that propelled Stanford to its second consecutive NCAA championship Sunday.
Stanford beat USC, 6-4, in a match that was never actually decided until Baldoni, who was named tournament MVP, made the final of her 15 saves in the closing moments.
"This group has an incredible spirit about them," Stanford coach John Tanner said. "They were relentless. Kate did an phenomenal job and Menon scored that last goal to finally give us some breathing room. It's a great way to finish off a wonderful season."
Menon's shot across the goal bounced off the far post and into the cage, sealing the victory.
"When I turned around the first person I saw was Kate and she was up to her waist out of the water she was so excited," Menon said. "I was looking for Kiley (Neushul) and maybe to work it to the other side. The first shot we got a tip out and to me that was just as important as the goal because we had the shot clock reset and had another possession. That second shot I just fired it as hard as I could."
The Cardinal (26-2) earned its third women's water polo national championship and the 103rd NCAA title overall for Stanford Athletics. The Cardinal also won in 2002.
Sunday's victory came two years after the Cardinal had lost the 2010 national title game, 10-9, to USC in the same Aztec Aquaplex pool.
The Cardinal defense, anchored by Baldoni, was remarkable the entire tournament while allowing nine total goals. Baldoni recorded a combined 29 saves in the three tournament games.
Even former and future teammates Melissa Seidemann and Annika Dries, who took the year off from school to compete with the U.S. Olympic team, were in attendance and invited to join the celebration in the pool.
"They are always in the back of our minds," Menon said. "We miss them so much. But to be able to share this championship with them was incredible. I can't wait to watch them when they are Stanford students again next year."
Baldoni, the sun in her face the entire fourth period, continually turned back USC scoring chances, which came at feverish pace as the clock ticked to 0:00.
Stanford also played without its powerful freshman two-meter Ashley Grossman, who fouled out of the contest early in the fourth period.
Neither team ever led by more than a goal, and USC's only advantage came when the Trojans' Madeline Rosenthal scored at the 5:12 mark of the opening period.
The lead lasted just 33 seconds, as Menon opened the Cardinal's account with a power-play goal. Stanford would strike again on the power play with 2:23 left in the first period as Neushul found the back of the net.
The teams traded goals in the final minute of the frame, with USC's Colleen O'Donnell equalizing with 53 seconds left, but one again a Trojan ejection would benefit Stanford, as Kaitlyn Lo fired used a defender to screen USC goalie Flora Bolonyai before firing home to the near post.
The defenses took over at this point, as neither school conceded in the second frame, and it was only a moment of bad luck that the scoreless run was broken a minute into the third period. Victoria Kennedy was called for holding the ball with two hands, and USC's Patricia Jancso converted the resulting penalty shot to pull the Trojans even at 3-3.
Woodside Priory grad Constance Hiller played an important role in the USC defense, which was nearly as effective as Stanford's.
Once again, though, the Cardinal answered quickly. Kaley Dodson found space in front of the USC goal and side-armed a shot home 10 seconds later.
This set the stage for a tense fourth period, in which USC's Monica Vavic tied it at the 6:57 mark. That was when Baldoni was at her finest, making a pair of tough saves, including snuffing out a USC 6-on-5.
Dodson scored again with 4:13 remaining, as Stanford's powerful 6-on-5 unit powered home its fourth goal of the game, setting up Menon's title-sealing shot three minutes later.
"It's been a great four years," Menon said. "I've known JT since I was nine years old. The only water polo I know is JT water polo. To finish off my years with a win here just means so much."