The USC men’s water polo team’s matchup against No. 4 California was one that could have easily knocked it off its championship stride.
Instead, the Trojans gutted out a back-and-forth game Sunday and came out with a 7-6 victory at McDonald’s Swim Stadium.
“We needed to outwork them,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said, who earned his 400th win Sunday. “Against Cal, you cannot let them beat you up and down the pool. I thought we did a very good job of that today.”
In a rare nationally televised contest on ESPNU, junior driver Nikola Vavic struggled throughout the game against Cal’s defense, but came through in the most crucial moment to score the winning goal with 1:38 left in the game.
“I played an all-around bad game,” the younger Vavic said. “I’m just glad that I had an opportunity like that, and that it all worked out.”
In the first half, each team was able to take advantage of 6-on-5 opportunities. The two sides alternated goals in the first quarter, until Cal scored at the buzzer to take the early 3-2 lead.
No. 1 USC struggled through most of the second quarter to contain the Golden Bears’ attack. Goals by junior Hunter Gettelfinger and freshman Colin Mulcahy pushed Cal out to a 5-3 lead before junior two-meter Jeremy Davie scored just before halftime.
“We were giving up easy shots in the first half,” Vavic said. “Their goalie got hot, and it’s tough to score on a hot goalie. But we played 13 players [in the first half], so our key guys were well-rested for the second half.”
That extra rest paid dividends, as USC would hold Cal scoreless in the third quarter. The Trojans were able to draw level after sophomore driver Kostas Genidounias fought hard against two Cal defenders to score his second goal of the game.
“In the beginning, our defense was not focused enough, but we got better in the second half,” Genidounias said. “We were trying to drop the ball into the 1- and 2-meters to get some ejections, and we did that and scored a couple goals. That’s what won us this game.”
In the fourth quarter, a defensive lapse led to a Cal goal that gave them the lead with just more than seven minutes remaining. With 5:25 left, USC answered with a goal by junior utility Mace Rapsey that was set up after a key block by junior goalie James Clark.
“James played extremely well today,” Vavic said. “He made some really key blocks, but also just his presence in the goal was very effective.”
After a USC foul gave Cal a power play with just more than two minutes remaining, USC’s defense tightened up to force a turnover. In the ensuing possession, a foul on Cal gave the Trojans a power play of their own, and unlike the Bears, they were able to take advantage with Vavic’s only goal of the game.
After the go-ahead score, Cal had two opportunities to tie the game but was turned away by Clark and the USC defense.
In addition to giving the Trojans the lead, Vavic’s goal moved him up to No. 20 on the all-time USC scoring list, an achievement that Vavic placed little to no importance on after the game.
“It means nothing,” Vavic said. “As long as we win, I’m happy.”