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USC, UCLA advance to semifinal meeting at NCAA water polo championships

In nearly a quarter-century coaching the water polo teams at USC, Jovan Vavic has compiled an impressive number of red-card ejections for his trademark bench antics. Entering the MPSF tournament championship against Stanford on April 29, it had been a long time since his last ejection — possibly too long.

"I hadn't gotten one since 2014," Vavic said. "It's been four years. I got a compliment from someone: 'Jovan, you're doing a good job not getting red cards.' I said, 'Yeah, but I haven't won a title in four years with the men's team. When I was getting these red cards, we were winning.' "

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With that in mind, Vavic was able to tidily frame his ejection from the Stanford game as a "good omen." The Trojans beat the Cardinal to earn the No. 1 seed in this weekend's women's NCAA championships at USC's Uytengsu Aquatics Center. As penalty for his latest red card, Vavic could not coach the Trojans in their NCAA quarterfinal match Friday against Wagner.

Missing an NCAA tournament game was a first for Vavic. He watched from outside his office on the second level, flanked by USC athletic director Lynn Swann, as the Trojans made swift work of Wagner 12-5, behind a hat trick from USC sophomore two-meter Kaylee Brownsberger.

"The view was good," Vavic said later in the afternoon from his office that houses 14 NCAA championship trophies (nine for the men and five for the women). "Our focus was really to not spend too much energy and rest all of our key players. We knew that our tough game was going to be tomorrow."

From the moment the bracket was announced, the anticipation had been building for a semifinal match between rivals USC and UCLA, the No. 4 seed. While the Trojans had to advance without their coach's presence on the sideline, the Bruins had to compete at an even bigger disadvantage. U.S. Olympic team star and sophomore attacker Maddie Musselman was unavailable because of an undisclosed health reason, adding some intrigue to their match against No. 5 seed Pacific.

UCLA won with minimal drama 8-4, setting up a pool edition of the crosstown rivalry with national stakes at 3 p.m. Saturday.

"We have a lot of good pieces," UCLA first-year coach Adam Wright said. "We can never rely on one player. The reality is, as soon as you count on one person, you're in big trouble. We wouldn't be here on the last weekend if that was our approach."

Wright was noncommittal about Musselman's status for Saturday's game but said she would be one of the 16 Bruins dressed. Vavic didn't minimize the impact of Musselman, a native of Newport Beach.

"Very different," Vavic said. "You take Shaquille O'Neal or Kobe [Bryant] out of the Lakers, it's a different team. It doesn't mean they're not going to be tough."

UCLA enters the match as a decided underdog with or without Musselman. The Bruins, who won seven of the first nine NCAA women's water polo championships, have been supplanted by Stanford and USC, who have captured the last eight championships (Stanford five, USC three). The Trojans now consider the Cardinal their main rival and have beaten UCLA seven of the last eight times, including a 3-0 mark this year.

"The only thing we know right now is we've got a shot at No. 1 USC [on Saturday], and that's a fact," Wright said. "We can make a monster of it, sure. We haven't won since 2009. That really has no relevance to [Saturday]."

As always, emotions will be higher because of the rivalry, and it's a game that will determine who gets a title shot Sunday. That's bigger than any rivalry.

"I like the fact that we have won the three games prior to this game [Saturday]," Vavic said. "It is tough to beat somebody four times a year. Sooner or later, they're going to figure it out."

In Saturday's second semifinal, No. 2 Stanford, a 14-8 winner over UC Irvine, will face No. 3 California, which defeated Michigan 13-6.

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Twitter: @BradyMcCollough

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