In what is becoming one of the best rivalries in all of college athletics, the No. 2 USC men’s water polo team avenged its early-season loss to crosstown rival No. 1 UCLA in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion to defend their SoCal Tournament championship in Irvine, Calif. this past weekend.
The Trojans (17-1) trailed the top-ranked Bruins for the majority of the game and were down 10-7 with 4:08 remaining before they began their comeback. The ensuing victory not only represented a comeback to win the game, but one to regain USC’s footing as the top team in the land.
It started with a power play goal by senior two-meter Connor Virjee, which was followed by a goal by senior driver Nikola Vavic. Finally, senior utility Mace Rapsey put in the equalizer to tie the match at 10-10 with 1:30 remaining.
But the Trojans’ work was not done, as UCLA (18-1) took the lead right back just 30 seconds later. Like so many times before, though, USC would not go away, and junior driver Kostas Genidounias broke the Bruins’ hearts with a goal just before the final buzzer to push the game to overtime.
The teams remained tied at 11 after neither team was able to score in the first overtime period. Genidounias opened up the scoring in the second overtime period to give USC its first lead of the game since holding a 1-0 lead in the first. The USC defense, led by senior goalie James Clark, was able to hold off the Bruins’ extra man advantage and maintain the lead to win another one-goal match 12-11 and bring home another SoCal Tournament title.
“I am very proud of our team,” USC head coach Jovan Vavic said. “I am most proud of how hard our team played in those last three minutes. They really played with a true heart of a champion.”
Nikola Vavic and Genidounias both came up clutch in the win with four goals apiece and continued to lead the USC attack, just as they did all of last season. Virjee tallied two goals as well, while Clark had seven saves in goal.
By winning back-to-back SoCal titles, USC has now won 10 out of the last 11 SoCal crowns. The Trojans clinched their spot in the title match with a 10-6 win in the semifinals over No. 3-ranked Pacific, in which Vavic took over as USC’s all-time leading scorer.
The one-goal win over UCLA is also the fifth consecutive time that the two storied programs have had their game decided by only one goal, dating back to 2012.
USC has now won four of its last five games against UCLA. The last time both teams had a match decided by more than one goal was in 2011 when USC defeated UCLA 7-4 in the national championship game.
By defeating the top-ranked team in the country, USC is expected to reclaim its No. 1 ranking this week. UCLA earned its No. 1 ranking after snapping USC’s 41-game winning streak on Sept. 22 at the NorCal Tournament.
The two teams will meet at least once more on Nov. 21, when USC goes to Westwood for another epic clash.
“This win puts us in a good spot, but we have quite a bit of water polo to play,” Vavic said. “We could see all of these teams multiple times again in conference play and the NCAA tournament.”
The team returns home to the Uytengsu Aquatics Center on Saturday for a pair of matches against nonconference opponents Loyola Marymount and Cal Lutheran. USC will play the Lions at 1 p.m. before jumping right back in the pool to take on the Kingsmen at 3 p.m.
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