In the process of tracking down its unprecedented fifth straight NCAA men’s water polo championship, USC didn’t leave much to spare on the scoreboard, the clock, or by the light of day.
A bruising 11-10 victory late Sunday afternoon for the top-ranked and No. 1 seed Trojans before a raucous home McDonald’s Swim Stadium, coming again at the expense of rival UCLA, ranked and seeded second, wasn’t nearly secure when Kostas Genidounias’ goal with 40 seconds to play provided what would be the final margin.
Only after USC’s Mace Rapsey intercepted a pass in UCLA’s zone with less than 10 seconds to play could the Trojans bench players, coaches and even fans dare take a leap into the pool as the darkness started to set in with the persistent rain clouds hovering.
It was the third time this year the Trojans (29-0) outlasted the Bruins (28-5), each time by one goal.
“It was just one of those spectacular games,” said USC coach Jovan Vavic, accepting his 11th NCAA water polo title, eight of them with the men’s program. “(UCLA) executed well, but our guys have been there before, they know how to win, they have great heart and they know we’ll get the job done. It was a complete team effort.”
Genidounias, the Athens, Greece native and second-leading scorer all season with 67 goals, made his only goal of the game count, coming off a set play after a time out, initiated by a pass from senior captain Matt Burton were a pick was set to open Genidounias up.
“As soon as it left my hand, I saw him take one look, and it was in,” said Burton, one of three redshirt seniors on the team who have collected five NCAA championship rings.
“A play for the ages,” said Vavic.
Until that point, USC had the lead briefly only twice in the game – 1-0, after the first shot from Connor Virjee (Palos Verdes High) about 30 second in, and 6-5 for less than a minute in the second period on a goal by Tobias Preuss, a senior from Berlin who left the game for a spell with a bloody nose from the hard play.
In total, the Trojans led the game for three minutes, 37 seconds of the 32-minute contest.
UCLA’s greatest advantage was 4-1 with about 2 minutes left in the first quarter.
Bruins head coach Adam Wright would only call the outcome “very interesting,” noting that “rhythm can be controlled by not only the players but the people on the outside.”
He questioned the fact that UCLA had twice as many exclusions as USC – he repeatedly cited what he thought was a 11-5 margin when it was actually 10-5 – and thought a referee missed a late call when the ball came close to touching the end line behind the USC goal that could have stopped the action.
“It’ll be interesting to pull video of that last play,” said Wright. “You can’t hold somebody from trying to swim out when they’re facing forward. . . . It’s a shame the purity of the sport can’t play it out. It takes a very strong person to make that kind of call.
“It’s a game of momentum and it can be stopped in many ways. The hard part is it was stopped in an unfortunate way.”
Vavic said of the officiating: “It’s such a huge part of our game. When you win, you love it. When you lose, you hate it. There’s no way around it.”
UCLA scored the last two goals of the second quarter to take an 8-6 halftime lead, and two of USC’s second-quarter goals were either with a one or two man advantage.
A goal by freshman Danny McClintick (Agoura High), his second of the game, put the Bruins up 9-7 midway through the third quarter.
USC pulled even at 9-9 on the second goal of the game by Burton (Mira Costa High) off a lob pass from Michael Rosenthal, with 6:16 left.
UCLA senior captain Josh Samuels, who spent most of the game defending USC’s top scorers, put in a long shot with 3:09 to give the Bruins a 10-9 lead, but Rosenthal countered by skipping one past goalie Matt Rapacz with 2:25 left to tie it up at 10-10.
Twice, Samuels missed open shots in the final two minutes that could have put UCLA ahead.
Vavic said the slow start for USC was because goalie James Clark, a 6-foot-5 junior from Australia, “looked like a beginner, not like an Olympic goalie. I told our guys after the first quarter, just believe, and he’s going to start blocking – and he stopped many shots in the third and fourth quarters.
“I think we were too excited, and we had tunnel vision. We made great adjustments.”
Burton said he and his teammates couldn’t help but to have been pumped up when the game began.
“It’s UCLA and USC,” he said. “Their fans are covered in body paint and yelling and screaming. Our fans, and our band is going wild. It’s so special. This rivalry has really shaped who I am.”
UCLA 5 3 1 1 – 10
USC 3 3 2 3 – 11
Scoring — UCLA: Lathrope 2, McClintic 2, Samuels 2, Falshing, P. Reynolds, L. Reynolds, Lenhart. USC: Rosenthal 3, Virjee 2, Burton 2, Vavic, Preuss, Rapsey, Genidounias.
Saves — UCLA: Rapacz 11; USC Clark: 10
Records: UCLA (28-5), USC (29-0)