Senior Kiley Neushul, one of several Stanford players to have earned national player of the year honors in recent years, converted a penalty shot with 11 seconds remaining for the game-winner, minutes after the Bruins were assessed a penalty for calling a timeout without having possession of the ball.
The officials took their time to review it to make sure they had made the correct call. The penalty shot was the most dramatic of moments in the contest and it wasn't the only turning point.
There was goalie Gabby Stone turning away nine shots, a team defensive effort that helped Stanford (25-2) survive a hectic fourth quarter, field plays that were important to the outcome. All those things you can't stuff onto a scoresheet, those were the turning points and those are the moments captured on post-it notes, sometimes with one name, sometimes with seven.
"I wasn't nervous at all," Stone said. "We've been talking about this all year. I felt so prepared."
Senior Ashley Grossman, who had the idea of turning those slips of paper into a work of art that has come to symbolize Stanford's fourth national title in five years and fifth overall, was worried.
She didn't think she could provide the kind of leadership that past Cardinal stars provided in critical situations. Her teammates talked it out with her and Grossman turned out just fine, thank you.
Leadership works in many ways. No one at Stanford would question what Grossman meant to the team. And Grossman would never question her teammates. They played as one and made history together.
"I am incredibly proud of this team and the effort they put in," Cardinal coach John Tanner said. "They have been sensational throughout the year. The fourth quarter was a crazy adventure. We had to work our way through the defense. Just holding even took huge amounts of energy and perseverance."
Stanford became the first host institution to win the title. The Cardinal didn't even reach the title game the two previous times it hosted.
"Having won, we'll feel better about biding to host again," Tanner joked.
The victory also extended Stanford's streak of winning at least one NCAA championship in a school year to 39 years. The athletic program has been extending that record for the past 18 years and now has a total of 106 national crowns overall. UCLA, which has a few more NCAA titles under its belt, likely has a similar streak.
"It was the two best teams in the country playing for the national championship," Bruins coach Brandon Brooks said. "All you can ask for is to get there and have a chance. It's haunting for me to think about. It was shameful for it to end like that."
Brooks felt he called timeout while his goalie, senior national team member Sami Hill, had two hands on the ball. The officials ruled there was no clear possession.
"My heart goes out to Brandon," Tanner said. "I know what those guys did to get to this point. UCLA is an amazing team and it was an incredible atmosphere and an incredible water polo game."
Brooks was vying to become just the fourth different coach to win a national title. His predecessor, current national team coach Adam Krikorian, won seven titles at UCLA. Tanner just won his fifth. USC coach Jovan Vavic owns the other three.
The Bruins are 7-3 in championship games, losing to Stanford in each of the previous two years. The Cardinal improved to 5-6. USC is 3-4. California and Loyola Marymount each have one appearance in the title game.
When the penalty was first whistled, it didn't take long for Neushul to grab the ball and set up at the 5-meter mark. During the delay, Neushul had time to think things over.
"In my head I was thinking how I got hot during the game," she said. "Then I thought, what if I've already scored too much?"
Neushul began looking to her teammates, who, one by one, simply nodded to her. She received a clear sign from Stone, who seemed to indicate 'You got it, Kiley.'
"That's when I thought, 'yeah, I got it,' " said Neushul, who was a teammate with Hill in high school and is again on the national team. "I've never had a good NCAA tournament. I'm glad things came together."
Over the course of the weekend, Tanner visited with numerous alumni of the program and went so far as to apologize for not being able to spend more time.
"I kept hearing about more and more who were there," he said. "It felt like everyone was there."
Grossman said the team would be adding additional pieces of paper to the total, which might mean more work for Gurpreet Sohi, who took the time to give each teammate an envelope filled with their own post-it notes.
That 'S' sculpture will look a little different in the coming days, as each piece represents a piece of paper: the whole incredible season all wrapped up artistically, much as the way Stanford played this year.
NOTES: Neushul and Maggie Steffens have been named two of three finalists for the prestigious Peter J. Cutino Award, The Olympic Club of San Francisco announced. This award is given to the outstanding female and male collegiate water polo players in the United States as voted by the coaches of the Division I schools. Neushul capped her collegiate career by scoring five of Stanford's seven goals in the finals and was named to the All-Tournament first team after scoring nine goals in three games. A three-time All-American, Neushul's 222 career goals are third in Cardinal history. Steffens was previously a finalist for the Cutino Award in both 2013 and 2014. The Most Valuable Player at the NCAA Championship, Steffens scored seven goals for the Cardinal, assisted on four others, and nabbed six steals in three victories. The 2015 MPSF Player of the Year, Steffens finished her junior season with 53 goals and is 11th in Stanford history with 164 in her career. She posted 17 multi-goal efforts in 2015, including nine hat tricks. UCLA goalkeeper Sami Hill is the other female finalist for this year's Peter J. Cutino Award.
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