In the end, the USC Trojans always had an answer for the UCLA Bruins. They’ve gotten used to finding a way to win on the way to a record fifth consecutive NCAA title and another undefeated season. Kostas Genidounias found the back of the net with just 40 seconds left to deliver the game winner.
That goal capped a stirring comeback for the Trojans and heartbreak for the Bruins. Josh Samuels’ goal from beyond 10 meters with 3:09 to play gave UCLA yet another lead. They led at the end of the first three periods, but it wouldn’t hold up. Michal Rosenthal, tournament MVP, fought off a fierce attack as a power play was concluding with 2:25 remaining to even the match at 10 with his third goal of the day. Subsequent chances for UCLA failed to connect, setting the stage for the crucial Genidounias goal to make it 11-10.
Running a play at the suggestion of senior Tobias Preuss, USC Head Coach Jovan Vavic sent in the call for a play they last used against the Bruins back in 2008. It is designed to set a pick, freeing up the shooter.
“That last play was a play for the ages,” Vavic said. “I actually didn’t call it, I was confused on the sidelines, and I asked the guys what they think. Toby said ‘lets run candy’.”
Like most everything this season, ‘candy’ worked to perfection and Genidounias did the rest.
“Kostas in the man, that kid doesn’t feel pressure,” senior Matt Burton said. “He lives for that moment.”
A last gasp effort for the Bruins resulted in a tipped pass and a steal, leaving USC to do nothing more than run out the clock and let the celebration begin. As is customary in water polo, the Trojan bench emptied into the water, and on a day when it rained on and off, so did a few USC supporters.
“What a game, one of those spectacular games,” Vavic said. “UCLA was extremely well-coached, prepared, ready and they executed really well. Our guys have been there before they know how to win, they have a great heart. They believe that we can get the job done. When we needed to stop them, we did at the end of the game, and that made the difference.”
|WATER POLO CHAMPIONSHIP|
Championship: USC 11, UCLA 10
Recap Highlights Photo Gallery
Feature: Familiar foes set to settle title
Consolation: St. Francis (N.Y.) 14, Air Force 8
Feature: St. Francis wraps up best season
Semis: USC 18, Air Force 7
Feature: Heidmous rebuilds Air Force program
Semis: UCLA 17, St. Francis (N.Y.) 3
Feature: St. Francis keeps improving
|Interactive Bracket | Printable|
For Rosenthal, the first non-California native to win the tournament MVP award since 1999, this capped an amazing run.
“I came to California [from Florida] to play water polo,” Rosenthal said. “I wanted to come to SC to see how good I could get at water polo and made a decision to stay for this fifth year, and oh boy, best decision I ever made.”
That decision gave, Rosenthal, a fifth-year senior, one for the thumb as they say, and a college experience that knew nothing other than championships.
For the third time in the last four years, UCLA had to watch the rival Trojans celebrate.
“Of course it hurts,” UCLA Head Coach Adam Wright said. “This is a group that has gone on a long journey and put themselves in a hell of a position… it hurts.”
Wright was not pleased with the officials and cited a 10-5 advantage in exclusions for USC as evidence.
“The officiating is such a huge part of our game, when you win you love it, when you lose you hate it, there is no way around it,” said Vavic, when asked about the officiating and exclusion difference.
Looking back through the match will perhaps be the most painful for the Bruins as they controlled the contest for the majority. UCLA held leads of 5-2, 8-6 and the late 10-9 advantage.
USC struck first less than a minute into the game when Connor Virjee ripped the net for a 1-0 lead. All that did was ignite the Bruin offense as UCLA peeled off four consecutive goals to build up a 4-1 lead, the last coming on a lob from Paul Reynolds.
The Trojans managed a counter when Nikola Vavic found the net with 1:29 remaining in the period for a 4-2 game. Undaunted the Bruins turned to their senior leader, Samuels, for a distance goal and a 5-2 lead as a power play was concluding. Virjee had the last word in the period with a score to make it 5-3.
The Trojans took a page out of the Bruin playbook in the second as they started off in dominating fashion. Carrying over from the first, USC ran off three consecutive goals to take the lead at 6-5. Preuss, who left earlier for a bloody nose, answered the bell with a perimeter shot for the lead. In what was truly a game of runs, UCLA responded with a three goal run of its own. Lucas Reynolds battled at two meters for position and delivered, Bret Lathrope connected from outside, and Daniel Lenhart saw a shot deflected in for a score. When the dust cleared and the first half was complete, UCLA was in charge, leading 8-6.
Defense was the name of the game in the third as the teams combined for just three goals after a high-scoring affair through two periods. Rosenthal got it started for USC on a power-play strike 40 seconds in, cutting the UCLA lead to 8-7. The two teams traded opportunities until the 2:17 mark when freshman Danny McClintick scored on the counter attack for a 9-7 UCLA lead. Trojan Mace Rapsey closed out the scoring for the period with a power-play goal of his own and a 9-8 game. UCLA had a chance to answer, but after Paul Reynolds drew an exclusion in transition, the Bruins couldn’t capitalize and headed to the fourth ahead by one.
After trailing for large chunks of the game, the fourth was the time to shine for the Men of Troy. Burton got free in front of the net on a counter attack to tie the match at nine less than two minutes into the period. The goalies came up big with UCLA’s Matthew Rapacz and USC’s James Clark each making crucial saves to preserve the stalemate heading to the closing moments.
The win for the Trojans draws another line in the sand in the bitter USC-UCLA rivalry that runs the gamut from water polo to football and everything in between. In the water polo arena, it shows no sign of slowing. While Vavic will have his hands full in the coming months taking on an interim position with the USA Water Polo Men’s National Team and the USC women’s season, he has plans to be right back in the same spot next December.
“We’re going to win it next year, write it down,” he said.
At this point, can you doubt him?