They say you win some and you lose some, but for the No. 1-ranked USC men’s water polo team, a loss hadn’t occurred in nearly two years. On Sunday, the Trojans got that taste of losing for the first time since Nov. 27, 2011, when they narrowly fell to crosstown rival and No. 2-ranked UCLA in the title match of the NorCal Tournament in Berkeley, Calif.
The loss breaks the Trojans’ 41-game winning streak, which was just three games short of the program record. Their last loss before Sunday’s also came to the rival Bruins in 2011 when they fell in sudden death, 10-9, in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Tournament title match.
“We are very disappointed that we did not play better,” USC head coach Jovan Vavic said. “I think our hustle and intensity wasn’t terrible. In many ways, we worked very hard, but just didn’t have a very good defensive game. We allowed UCLA to score nine goals when our goal is to average below five [goals given up]. We also allowed eight natural goals [goals when both teams are at full strength], so that was really the biggest disappointment in the game, that we made too many defensive errors.”
USC (10-1) had extended its winning streak to 41 games earlier in the day when the team snuck by No. 5 Stanford in overtime, 8-7, in the semifinal match. The game against UCLA, however, was a back-and-forth affair with no team leading by more than a single goal and eight ties throughout.
UCLA (11-0) had a one-goal lead after the first quarter before the Trojans answered back in the second to take a 6-5 lead going into halftime. USC took the lead after a goal by senior driver Nikola Vavic with just 39 seconds left in the half.
After the two teams each added a goal in the third quarter, the match hung in the balance in the fourth. The Bruins started the final frame strong with back-to-back goals to take an 8-7 lead. USC responded with an equalizing goal by junior driver Kostas Genidounias with 3:30 remaining to play.
With the game tied at 8, UCLA jumped ahead just 45 seconds later to give the Bruins the 9-8 edge that the Trojans could not overcome.
Senior utility man Mace Rapsey finished the game with three goals, while redshirt junior driver Zach Lucas added two.
The nine goals scored by UCLA were the most USC had given up since the 2012 NCAA championship game, when UCLA scored 10 goals in a game the Trojans won 11-10.
“I learned what I already knew -— that this team needs to improve on defense,” Coach Vavic said. “The players from last year who were not asked to play a major defensive role this year have to do that, and I think they are struggling with that role.”
Though the team’s defensive woes are very apparent to Vavic, it appears that improvement in that facet of the game hinges only on an attitude adjustment from the unproven players.
“In water polo, defense is all about attitude,” Vavic said. “If you have an attitude about playing defense and playing hard, you will be a good defender. I honestly think that’s our biggest issue right now — our attitude is wrong. We have to change our attitude to our defense and understand that if our attitude is there, then we’re gonna be a good team.”
Even with the loss, Vavic stresses that this is going to be beneficial down the road for the Trojans, who continue to eye their sixth consecutive national championship.
“This was a tough loss, but it could be a good loss,” Vavic said. “We’re gonna learn from it and gonna improve our defense and train harder, primarily in the classroom. We need to work harder in the classroom and recognize what we are doing wrong. We’re gonna benefit from this loss.”
Earlier in the day against Stanford, the Cardinal had a four-goal advantage midway through the fourth quarter before Genidounias and Lucas punched in late goals to send the game into overtime. Genidounias netted his third goal of the game in overtime to give the Trojans a 7-6 lead. Senior two-meter Connor Virjee also tallied a goal to put USC up 8-6 with 1:31 remaining in the overtime period.
The team had won the three previous NorCal Tournament titles prior to the loss to UCLA.
The Trojans now return to the Uytengsu Aquatics Center on campus for their home openers Saturday, where they will host Princeton and Whittier in back-to-back games. The Princeton game will begin at 10 a.m., and the Whittier game will follow at 11:30 a.m.
With games on the horizon, Vavic stressed that his team’s focus is on its next practice session.
“Right now, I’m really looking forward to our practices and not to the next opponent,” Vavic said. “I’m looking forward to fixing what we need to fix. With a few practices, I’m sure that our competitive fight is gonna be there, and we’re gonna be ready to compete the way that we have been competing for the last five years.”
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