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USC lets water polo national title slip away against Cal

For the third time in as many years, USC was close enough to a national water polo title that the Trojans could see it and feel it.

Then things got a little fuzzy and the trophy slipped through their fingers again, with California scoring three overtime goals Sunday to upset the top-ranked Trojans, 11-8.

“We just can’t forget about the last two championships and how we lost them,” Coach Jovan Vavic said. “It came down to blocking and losing our focus.

“And we did it again. We lost our focus on defense.”

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Or maybe No. 3 Cal forced them into mistakes. Either way, USC let two-goal leads get away twice, the last time when the Bears scored three consecutive goals to take a 6-5 lead halfway through the final period.

USC (24-2), riding a 16-game winning streak, fought back, with Blake Edwards and Matt Maier scoring around a Cal goal to force overtime. It was the first overtime of the season for USC but the second in less than 24 hours for Cal, which needed the extra six minutes to beat UCLA in Saturday’s championship semifinals.

And again the Bears (23-4) used the extra periods to their advantage, with Farrel South putting them ahead to stay by slipping a shot just between goalkeeper McQuin Baron and the post with a minute left in the first three-minute overtime.

“I was disappointed,” said Baron, who had an otherwise excellent game, making 19 saves, many in spectacular fashion. “We didn’t execute our defense in the last quarters.”

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Luca Cupido put the game on ice, scoring from long distance just before the horn sounded to end the period, allowing the Bears to settle in to play defense in front of tournament most valuable player Lazar Andric in the second three-minute extra period. Freshman Safak Simsek added an insurance goal and when time ran out, the Cal players jumped into their home pool to celebrate as the USC players looked on.

Two years ago, USC lost in similar fashion, giving up the game-winning score to UCLA in the final 34 seconds. The Trojans have played in the last 12 NCAA water polo finals, yet haven’t won one since 2013.

“Final games are always challenging,” junior James Walters said. “I guess that’s the way sports go. We fell short. We need to go back and take a look at everything and train for next year.”

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For Cal, the title was the 14th in school history but the Bears’ first since 2007. In between came a double-overtime loss to the Trojans in the 2010 final at home, a result Cupido said motivated him Sunday.

“My brother played here and in his freshman year, they lost to USC in sudden death,” he said. “He told me how he had nightmares for weeks after about that game. Things he could’ve done better, what the team could have done better.

“I told him I’m going to win for him too, because this is a team effort. If you’re a Bear, it’s not only for the four years you’re here but even when you’re done.”

Now it’s Vavic and the USC players who will be having trouble sleeping.

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“We’ve got to continue to improve in the areas where weaknesses [are]. Those weaknesses in the end hurt us,” said Vavic, whose team’s only two losses this season were to Cal in Berkeley.

“We’ve got to understand that these big games are not going to be given to you. You have to go out and get it. And you have to work harder, you’ve got to focus harder.”

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com Twitter: kbaxter11


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