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Stanford turns back USC to win NCAA women's water polo title

Stanford turns back USC to win NCAA women's water polo title
USC's Alejandra Azna pressures Stanford's Ryann Neushul during the second half of the NCAA championship game Sunday in Palo Alto. (Josie Lepe / For The Times)

The USC women’s water polo team came close. So close. As interim head coach Casey Moon later told reporters, one change in how the ball bounced separated the Trojans from winning the national championship.

But they fell short of that, losing 9-8 to Stanford (23-2) in the NCAA title game on Sunday. There were tears as USC (28-2) accepted the runner-up trophy.

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“Our team is truly a family,” Moon said. “And regardless, win or lose, we can look each other in the eye and say, ‘Hey, we played our best.’ And that’s what separates us.”

Their resolve deepened when they lost their head coach, Jovan Vavic, in March. Two months ago, he was arrested on a charge of conspiracy to commit racketeering and fired by USC hours later. As the college admissions scandal unfolded, USC turned inward, to continue the season without its leader.

“A lot of people probably thought it was probably gonna ruin our season,” junior Kelsey McIntosh said. “But I’m so proud of how we overcame that and got so much closer, with so much more fight in us.”

Winning was not just about earning back-to-back titles for the first time in program history. It was about proving that USC’s success would not end with the firing of Vavic.

The championship game started as expected — a battle. Through the first half, USC and Stanford exchanged goals behind carefully crafted offensive possessions. They ended the half tied at five.

Aria Fischer and Paige Hauschild fouled out in the third quarter. Hauschild’s foul allowed Stanford to tie the score 8-8 on a penalty shot. The tie stretched early into the fourth quarter.

During a timeout, Stanford’s fans chanted, “Where is Jovan?”

“Let’s prove them wrong,” goalie Amanda Longan said before the tournament. “Let’s prove to them that, you know, we’re the ones in the water.”

But Stanford took the lead halfway through the fourth quarter when freshman Ryann Neuschul hurled a shot past Longan. The Trojans outsprinted Stanford to shut down a fastbreak while stifling their scoring chances with physical defense, no matter how long the possession lasted.

“Every single girl on this team is like a sister to me,” Maud Megens said before the tournament. “And winning this championship would really be like winning it with family.”

But every offensive chance the Trojans had fell flat. With less than a minute left, Megens whipped a shot from the left that the Cardinal deflected, and Stanford drained the clock to eight seconds before USC regained control and called a timeout.

Megens got the ball once again. She hurled a hard shot just before the buzzer sounded to the left side of the goal.

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It bounced off the post.

The Cardinal leaped into the water in front of an exuberant home crowd. The Trojans swam out of the pool silently, embraced on the pool deck and stole away for a moment of privacy.

When the team returned, Moon and Longan shared a long hug before Longan accepted the runner-up trophy on behalf of the Trojans. It was not the history-making ending they strived for, but they still achieved their seasonlong goal — proving that the program’s success was bigger than Vavic. That the team could still achieve excellence and play for the national title.

“To the very last second of the game, we were a family,” freshman Tilly Kearns said. “And we still are a family. And that’s gonna carry through forever.”

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