Water polo stifles UCLA in wire-to-wire win

Paige Hauschild is floating above the water with the ball cocked back in her hand.
Redshirt senior driver Paige Hauschild helped lift the Trojans to victory over No. 3 UCLA with both her scoring and her passing, tallying a first-half hat trick and 6 assists in the win. (Robert Westermann | Daily Trojan)

No. 1 USC was firing from all cylinders in its convincing 14-9 win over crosstown rivals UCLA in the sizzling heat Saturday afternoon at Spieker Aquatics Center. The win cemented an undefeated Mountain Pacific Sports Federation conference record and the No. 1 overall seed in the MPSF conference tournament. 

After the win and shaking hands with the No. 3 Bruins, Head Coach Marko Pintaric gathered the team in a huddle in front of the Trojan bench. He gave them words of encouragement and congratulations after getting the cherry on top of their 25-1 regular season.

“We always try to find something to play for, some kind of a goal to achieve,” Pintaric said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. “It always feels good to win a big game, but this program especially understands the importance of playing one game at a time and taking one practice at a time because this is what brings the best out of the team.”

USC got the lead just a little more than a minute into the game and never looked back, leading the Bruins for the entire contest. The Trojans’ defense shined with active hands all over the pool. USC had 12 blocks and seven steals on the day and only allowed three goals in the first half.

“The timing was great. When we needed to go play, we played the hands in the right position … [and] we played really high intensity,” Pintaric said. “Statistics are not everything but they’re really good indicators of the real situation in the pool and the first half was exactly that.”

But the defense was by no means the only bright spot for USC on the day. Redshirt junior 2-meter Tilly Kearns and redshirt senior driver Paige Hauschild combined to score eight of USC’s 14 goals on the day. Kearns was able to power the Trojans home, scoring more than half of USC’s second-half goals.

The captains had a rhythm going with each other, with Hauschild assisting on three of Kearns’ goals. Kearns wasn’t the only person Hauschild set up on the day, as she was finding teammates all over the water. In total, Hauschild scored or assisted on nine of USC’s 14 goals on the day. She is now tied for second in the MPSF in assists.

“Something we’ve been working on all week is finding our centers, finding the opportunities early and really trying to take advantage as soon as we can,” Hauschild said. “All of our centers made it super easy, they created so many opportunities, which made all of our jobs on the perimeter easy [by] just giving them the ball.”

This win marks the Trojans’ 13th straight win on the year and gives USC 18 wins in its last 22 games against the rival Bruins. USC had already beaten UCLA twice this season, but the Trojans played the spoiler this time. It was an important game for UCLA with a chance to match Stanford on record in the MPSF, and the Bruins were celebrating their seniors for their final home game.

“We were definitely nervous as it was their seniors on senior day. It was their home pool, we knew it was gonna be a big crowd and the stakes were high moving into the postseason,” Hauschild said. “We were ready for a battle and I definitely think we executed all the things that we were practicing, so I’m super proud of my team.”

With regular season play now concluded, the Trojans shift their sights to postseason play in the coming weeks. Thanks to Saturday’s win, USC gets an automatic first-round bye in the MPSF conference tournament. 

“We’ve been doing really well, which is super encouraging, and it’s definitely the momentum that we wanted to carry into the postseason, but we have a lot to work on, “ Hauschild said. “Everyone’s super excited for the postseason and, if we bring that kind of energy that we brought today into the postseason, we’ll be successful.”

USC will next see action Saturday at 2:30 p.m. in the MPSF semifinals at Spartan Recreation and Aquatics Center, where it will face the winner of Indiana and UC Berkeley.