By its own standards, USC is reeling.
For the first time since 2000, the No. 3 USC women’s water polo team (15-5, 3-3) has dropped three games in conference play.
Following a loss to No. 1 Stanford in double overtime a week ago, the defending national champions fell in similar fashion Saturday 7-5 at the hands of crosstown rival No. 4 UCLA. This was USC’s second straight loss to a top-five foe.
The Women of Troy had a chance to avert disaster, tying the game at five in the fourth quarter with 6:21 remaining.
But before USC could grab the lead, the Bruins (20-5, 3-3) fought back with two goals from center Grace Reynolds to notch the victory.
“In the last couple of minutes we missed some opportunities,” said USC coach Jovan Vavic. “It was very similar to the Stanford game. We were 2-for-11 in our opportunities. Our shots didn’t go in.”
The beginning of the game went well for both teams, particularly in the first frame, with both sides getting on the scoreboard with one goal. But Reynolds proved to be too much to stop through the remainder of the game, scoring four goals.
USC’s attack was more spread out, with five different players each scoring five goals.
“We allowed one of their top players to score four goals, so we just didn’t execute,” said senior driver Joelle Bekhazi.
As the game progressed, a myriad of fouls and other penalties plagued the Women of Troy, giving the host Bruins a decisive advantage.
“We were unlucky,” Bekhazi said. “Two of our best players got two ejections in the first half and one of our best starters wasn’t playing today.”
Senior two-meter Kristen Dronberger had three ejections by the third period, forcing her to sit out the remainder of the game.
Yet despite the technical mistakes by both teams, USC did see a few of its younger players shoulder the load, as freshmen two-meters Kaleigh Gilchrist and Madeline Rosenthal and sophomore driver Blair Moody each finished with a goal apiece.
“In this game, the younger players were playing with more confidence and playing harder than some of our older players,” Vavic said. “We are a young team. Out of our top 11 players, seven are freshmen or sophomores. Those seven really need to learn on the run and there isn’t enough time to teach them anything.”
Although the loss is USC’s third in Montain Pacific Sports Federation play, it will likely relegate it to the No. 4 seed in the MPSF tournament, scheduled to begin April 29 in San Jose, Calif.
With one conference game remaining on the slate, a home game against San Jose State, there is lasting pressure for a younger Women of Troy team to repeat as national champions.
“Next week is just going to be a big challenge because we have two losses in a row,” Bekhazi said. “We really need to get our confidence back.”