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USC Sports

Water polo final could be a grudge match for USC, UCLA

Max Irving
UCLA’s Max Irving looks for a shot while being defended by USC defenders on Nov. 20.
(Twitter: @UCLAWaterPolo)

Adam Wright has coached UCLA to national men’s water polo championships in each of the last two seasons. But if that’s given the Bruins a little extra confidence heading into this weekend’s NCAA Final Four in Berkeley, Wright is doing his best to dismiss it.

“We don’t put too much credence in that,” he said. “If we’re not on the offensive, then we’re not playing our style of water polo. We’re not dictating how we want to play.

“We’re on the hunt to get better.”

Over at USC, the Bruins’ success has become a catalyst, since UCLA won those two titles by defeating the Trojans in the finals.

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“That kind of pain really has motivated us,” said junior driver Blake Edwards, who leads USC with 40 goals. “There was a lot of learning from that. The team’s matured a lot.”

Before the teams can get another crack at each other they’ll have to get through Saturday afternoon’s semifinals, where top-ranked USC (23-1) will face No. 9 Harvard (27-6) and No. 2 UCLA (25-3) meets host California (21-4). The winners will meet in Sunday’s final at the Spieker Aquatics Complex.

And if Wright isn’t letting his players look back to last season, he’s not letting them look ahead to Sunday’s final either. Not with No. 3 California, playing at home, in the way of another potential showdown with USC.

“The only team we’re looking at is Cal,” he said. “We understand how good they are.”

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Good enough to hand USC its lone loss of the season, in September at Berkeley. The Trojans have won 15 straight since then, two of those wins coming over UCLA. The first, three weeks ago, snapped the Bruins’ 24-game win streak to start the season.

Reaching the final — something USC has done in each of the last 11 seasons — would give the Trojans a chance for revenge no matter which team they meet: If it’s UCLA, they can avenge the results of the last two NCAA title games; if it’s California, they’ll play the only school they’ve lost to this year.

Edwards said USC Coach Jovan Vavic is trying to motivate his players by appealing more to their pride than their desire for payback. Senior Nick Bell is the only current Trojan who played on USC’s last NCAA title-winning team, in 2013.

“We’re reminded by Jovan constantly [that] we don’t actually know what it’s like to win a championship,” Edwards said.

 Vavic does, having won nine national titles with the men’s team and five with the USC women, giving him a school-record 14 championships overall.

“The feeling of winning the title is really unique and special,” said Vavic, who has won at least 20 games in each of the last nine men’s seasons, giving him 517 victories in 22 years. “You never know what it’s like until you really win one and be a part of it.

“It doesn’t get old. When it gets old, I’m going to stop coaching.”

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kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: kbaxter11


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