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USC advances to NCAA water polo championship; UCLA loses in semifinals

USC advances to NCAA water polo championship; UCLA loses in semifinals
USC goalie Amanda Longan, shown during a game earlier this season, helped USC advance to the NCAA championship game Sunday. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Senior goalie Amanda Longan was nervous. She always is during USC’s water polo games. But as time expired in the NCAA semifinals with the Trojans tied against California, the circumstances certainly added anxiety.

But did she doubt they could pull it off?

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“No doubt ever crossed my mind,” she said.

The No. 1-seeded Trojans (28-1) remained composed in the high-pressure situation and scored three times in overtime, securing a 10-8 win over No. 4 Golden Bears (17-9). USC faces No. 2 Stanford (22-2) at 3 p.m. Sunday in the national championship game.

California played a physical game, with long offensive possessions and an unrelenting defense. USC opened a 3-0 lead, but when California responded with back-to-back goals, the team remained unfazed.

“The closer it got,” freshman Bayley Weber said, “the more fun it became.”

That energy fueled USC as it persisted through the semifinal. Several players have experience competing internationally for national teams, and the familiarity with pressure showed.

With the score tied at halftime, freshman Alejandra Aznar gave the Trojans a third-quarter lead with a lob shot. Minutes later, she drove through defenders and scored again to give USC a 7-5 lead. She was one of five freshmen who scored for USC.

“It just shows how much they’ve grown,” Longan said of the freshmen, “and how accepting they are to stepping up and trying to be that … hero for the team.”

Even as California tied the score again and took possession with less than a minute left, USC made the defensive stop. Even as the Trojans’ last-second shot bounced off the crossbar, forcing overtime, their excitement only grew.

“Our team was built for this …” coach Casey Moon said. “Our girls are so confident in each other and truly, truly love one another. And regardless of what the circumstances are, they’re gonna do everything in their power to come out on the winning end.”

Minutes after overtime began, junior Maud Megens got the ball in front of the goal and was fouled. Sophomore Paige Hauschild whipped a penalty shot into the net to give USC the lead. Megens later stole the ball from California and USC scored on the fastbreak. The Golden Bears finally scored in overtime to make it a one-goal game, but the Trojans scored once more to regain the two-goal advantage.

The Trojans, Longan said, were comforted by their faith in each other. Down the stretch the players did not get down on each other.

“When everything is on the line, when your back’s against the wall,” Moon said, “I think that’s when our girls flourish the best.”

Stanford 8, UCLA 7 (OT)

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The No. 3-seeded Bruins (24-7) fell behind 5-0 against the Cardinal but closed that to a three-goal gap at halftime. By the end of the third quarter, the score was tied 5-5. The game would eventually reach overtime, where Stanford would prevail to reach the title game.

Stanford scored twice early in overtime to take command. UCLA netted a goal with a minute remaining to cut the deficit to one, but the Bruins came up short. The Cardinal took possession and killed the time on the clock, securing the win.

“I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” coach Adam Wright said. “To be on this stage and to fight back, to get ahead, to have a couple opportunities to win the game, I couldn’t ask for more.”

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