With mere seconds remaining on the clock, it was a conversation held hours before the match that was the key.
Redshirt junior driver Kyle Sterling scored the game-winning goal as the No. 1 USC men’s water polo team captured a last minute 7-6 victory over UCLA on Saturday.
Planning their attack during the trip to UCLA’s Speiker Acquatics Center earlier in the day, Sterling and sophomore driver Peter Kurzeka discussed a no-look pass to one-timer combination that the two had worked on in practice.
With the Trojans (20-1, 6-0) struggling to find the back of the net against No. 4 UCLA’s strong defense and both Kurzeka and Sterling in the pool for the final minute, USC’s final play of the night turned out to be scripted drama — the two drivers running the play to perfection and putting in the game-winning goal with just 39 seconds left.
“I had had a pretty poor game up to that point, but I kept telling myself that I was going to get the last goal,” Sterling said. “It was just two players being on the same page. We look for that pass all the time. [Kurzeka] just gave me a great pass.”
The fourth quarter had been a defensive struggle, the only offense coming from sophomore two-meter Matt Burton’s second goal of the night, which came from nearly five meters out, equalizing the score at 6-6.
Now it was time for the Trojans to turn that defense back on for one final stop.
After USC senior driver Matt Sagehorn was called for exclusion with 25 seconds left, the Trojans had to stop the Bruins down a player. All night, both teams had capitalized on six-on-five possessions — in fact, during the first half, neither team scored during full six-on-six action.
With just four seconds left on the clock and UCLA senior Scott Davidson — who already had four goals of his own — lining up a shot, USC senior driver Anthony Artokovich made a game-saving field block.
“There’s nothing you can really do to prepare for that situation, just show your hands,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said of the last second situation.
The man-up advantages were key all night.
In the first quarter both Burton and Davidson scored almost immediately after exceptions were called on the other team.
It was not until early in the second quarter that an advantage was completed without a team scoring a goal, when the Trojans forced an outside shot from the Bruins, handled well by sophomore goalie Joel Dennerley, who finished with 10 saves.
“Both teams played very good half-court team defense,” Vavic said. “You really don’t want to give up a goal [on an advantage]. The goal is to try to avoid giving up that extra shot.”
Vavic got his wish a few more times during that second quarter, as the Bruins were unable to capitalize on two more advantages, including one right before the end of the half.
The third quarter turned into an offensive affair, as six goals were scored, more than double the offensive output of the first half of play. Davidson recorded his third and fourth goals, while the Trojans added scores from Burton, senior two-meter Shea Buckner and Sagehorn, who scored on the game’s only fast-break conversion.
The Trojans can now turn their attention to No. 3 Stanford, who travel to McDonald’s Swim Stadium Saturday for both teams’ penultimate MPSF game before the postseason begins.