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USC women’s water polo wins NCAA title with record-breaking rout over UCLA

The USC's women's water polo team celebrates after defeating UCLA to win the 2021 NCAA water polo title.
The USC’s women’s water polo team celebrates after defeating UCLA to win the 2021 NCAA water polo title on Sunday.
(John McGillen / USC Athletics)

The goals were relentless. A low ball skipped past the defense. A high corner shot found the back of the cage. A powerful drive slipped through the goalie’s fingers.

The onslaught left UCLA stunned. USC left as champions.

The No. 1 Trojans dominated rival UCLA in the NCAA championship Sunday at UCLA’s Spieker Aquatics Center in a wire-to-wire 18-9 victory to clinch the program’s sixth NCAA title. It was the largest margin of victory in an NCAA championship game, decimating the previous mark of four, and the most goals scored in a championship final.

Each of the previous five NCAA titles were decided by one goal, including USC’s last triumph in 2018. For once, the Trojans weren’t left to sweat out the final seconds. This time, they were wrapped in a group hug on the pool deck as the clock counted down. When the final horn sounded, head coach Marko Pintaric had his arms wrapped around the shoulders of two players as they all jumped into the pool.

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Lindsay Gottlieb did not intend to leave the NBA, but USC won over its new women’s basketball coach by promising to invest the resources needed to win.

“They wanted it so much,” said Pintaric, who won his first national title as a head coach. “They waited for too long.”

Since 2018, USC’s road back to the championship has been dramatic for all the wrong reasons. The 2019 season was marred by the Varsity Blues scandal and the Trojans lost by one in the national final to Stanford. They returned in 2020 with the No. 1 ranking but had their championship hopes dashed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’ve waited two years for this moment,” said redshirt senior Denise Mammolito, who had a goal and four assists.

The Trojans (22-1) unleashed all their pent-up frustration from the opening sprint, jumping out to a 2-0 lead in 91 seconds. They rattled off five straight goals in the first half to increase their lead to six with 3:13 remaining in the second quarter and avenged their only loss of the season with the most goals they’ve ever scored against their rivals.

USC's Denise Mammolito looks to shoot past UCLA's Val Ayala during the 2021 NCAA women's water polo final on Sunday.
(John McGillen / USC Athletics)

The 18 goals were the most allowed by the No. 3 Bruins (15-5) this season. With each score, the Trojans grew more boisterous on the pool deck. The energy overwhelmed the Bruins.

“They were pretty much lights out,” UCLA head coach Adam Wright said.

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USC goalie Holly Parker had a career-high 13 saves as the Trojans kept UCLA’s leading scorer Hannah Palmer without a goal. Sophomore Abbi Hill led the Bruins with three goals, two of which came on penalties.

After beating Stanford in Saturday’s semifinal, UCLA was hoping to build off the momentum from its first NCAA tournament win over the Cardinal since 2009. The Bruins program that is tied for the most NCAA titles in women’s water polo hasn’t reached the pinnacle in 12 years.

UCLA had just one player — fifth-year senior Brooke Maxson — who had experienced a national championship game. The defender watched from the sideline in 2017 when UCLA lost 8-7 to Stanford.

“This was everyone’s first experience in this type of game,” Wright said. “We tried to make it the same game, clearly didn’t do that.”

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On the other side, the Trojans leaned on their experience from 2019. The upperclassmen told the freshmen what to expect. They felt focused, hungry and ready to play, said redshirt senior Maud Megens, a Dutch national team member who had six goals, three steals and three assists.

In final words to his team Saturday night, Pintaric simply wished them good luck. With leaders like Megens and Mammolito, who returned for an additional season after last year’s disappointing cancellation, the coach knew his team was ready.

“This was their journey from Day 1 to now,” Pintaric said. “You couldn’t write a happier ending.”


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