Goalkeeper Josip Pavic anchored a sparkling Croatia defence, and Miho Boskovic and Maro Jokovic both scored twice in the second half as Croatia pulled away from Italy for an 8-6 win Sunday to claim the gold medal at the London Games.
The win capped a perfect competition for Croatia, which rolled up an 8-0 record on the way to its first Olympic gold in men's water polo and second ever after its silver at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
"We played amazing the whole tournament," Boskovic said. "I think we deserve 100 per cent this medal. We played the best water polo and did our finest performance the last match."
Now the hard work begins — celebrating the win.
"For sure, we will not sleep the next two or three days," he added with a grin.
With two of the best defences and goalkeepers in the tournament facing off against each other, the final began as a bitter defensive struggle. Croatia eventually grabbed control of the match early in the second half after Boskovic slotted home from long distance and then converted a penalty to take a 5-3 lead.
Jokovic gave Croatia more breathing room in the fourth quarter with two more goals, setting the country's fans, dressed in their traditional red-and-white checkered shirts, into a flag-waving frenzy.
"The whole tournament, our team was playing excellent, all eight games we were dominating all the teams," coach Ratko Rudic said. "For sure we deserved this gold medal."
No one is questioning that, particularly not Italy, which also lost to Croatia in the preliminary round 11-6.
"Today, they played better than us. The gold medal is for them, absolutely," Valentino Gallo of Italy said. "The defence of Croatia is very strong. They are strong in every facet of the game. They are the best team for sure. They win every match, every match (is) easy (for them)."
The key to Croatia's gold medal-run was a stingy defence anchored by goalkeeper Josip Pavic, who finished the tournament with a competition-leading save percentage of 70 per cent.
"Pavic is I think the best goalkeeper in this tournament," Samir Barac of Croatia said. "With him, it's very, very easy to win."
Since a disappointing ninth-place finish at the 2012 European championship, Croatia has been on a roll, winning the FINA World League Finals last month.
In London, they almost made it look easy, topping their group in the preliminary round before crushing the 2008 silver medallist United States 8-2 in the quarterfinals and muscling their way past European championship runner-up Montenegro 7-5 in the semifinals.
Croatia was a part of traditional water polo heavyweight Yugoslavia, which won three Olympic titles before the country's breakup. Croatia played in its first Olympics as an independent country in 1992, and won silver four year later at the Atlanta Games, but had never topped the podium — until now.
"This is the first, I hope it's not the only one," centre forward Niksa Dobud said.
And with a young team — at least eight of the 13 players are under 30 — this group might be capable of winning a few more itself.
After the final buzzer, Croatia's players and coaches leapt into the pool, tearing the goal down and sitting on top of it in the water. They danced and sang as their fans chanted "Hrvatska! Hrvatska!"
The Italians, who were looking for their fourth Olympic water polo gold and first since 1992, could only console each other on the other end of the pool.
The 2011 world champion Italians ousted three-time defending champion Hungary in the quarterfinals and then gold medal-favourite Serbia in the semifinals, but fell short against a superior Croatia squad.
"We are very pleased with silver," Italy defender Maurizio Felugo said. "However, there is a slight element of disappointment as we dreamed of gold. But we are a young team, and we have only been together for three years. We will be back in Rio."
Ryan Lucas can be reached on twitter at www.twitter.com/relucasz