May 15, 2010

Kyle Kensing
Special to NCAA.com

SAN DIEGO - No. 2 Southern California avoided the fate of five-time defending champion UCLA, defeating upstart No. 6 Loyola Marymount, 10-6, Saturday in and NCAA Women's Water Polo semifinals.

Now the Women of Troy have a chance to bookend those Bruin titles with the program's first title since 2004. USC faces Stanford Sunday at the San Diego State University Aztec Aquaplex.

USC led early, but the upset-minded Lions stayed within a goal throughout. It wasn't until the final period when USC tacked on three scores that the Women of Troy put LMU away.

"LMU has done a great job. They were tired," said USC coach Jovan Vavic. "They played a very physical game and if they weren't tired, maybe this would have been different."

The sixth-seeded Lions came into Saturday's affair after an emotional 5-4 win over top- ranked defending champion UCLA. Conversely, USC cruised 20-5 in its quarterfinal outing on Friday.

But lacking anything in the proverbial tank wasn't a factor for his team's loss, said LMU coach Kyle Witt.

"By no means did we run out of gas, which is something I`m very happy about," he said. "I think what USC did better than us in that fourth quarter was execute. We gave them too much time to get a look on-cage against our shot blocker and goalie.

"You do that, and it's not going to go your way too often," he said.

USC made the most of those looks down the stretch. Alexandra Kiss notched the first of the three Women of Troy final stanza goals. Kristen Dronberger followed suit less than two minutes later, and Joelle Bekhazi slammed the door shut on a rifle with just under three minutes left.

LMU's freshman goalkeeper Kristine Cato, the star of Friday's upset, yielded six more goals to USC than against UCLA. She called Saturday's outcome disappointing and said she wanted another go-around.

"I feel ready to get back in the pool. If the next game was in five minutes, I'd be ready to go. To play the next game and forget about this game, that's just our fire."

Both teams were awarded penalty shots in the fourth period, but neither scored on those looks.

Vavic said fruitless penalty shot attempts are nothing new in his experiences, but emphasized a team's ability to move on from such mistakes as being key.

"You can't go into these games and second guess yourself," Vavic said. "You just have to be aggressive. Our girls did that."

Sunday's championship marks the third consecutive time USC has advanced to the NCAA title round, and fifth time since 2004. However, only in 2004 did the Women of Troy come away with top honors.

"We have five seniors who have been through three upsets [in the championships]," Bekhazi said. "We don't want them going away without a ring."

"I've shared more with our seniors than anyone else," echoed Dronberger. "We want to send them off with something more than just a diploma."

Standing between USC and the title is top-seeded Stanford, a deep, balanced team that split a pair of hotly contested matches with the Women of Troy earlier this season.

"Stanford has a very good defensive team, and they help each other," Vavic said. "They're physical, and they're very fast."

Stanford used that physicality to outmuscle Cal in Saturday's other semifinal, holding the Golden Bears to three goals.

"You always make adjustments. From game-to-game, there are certain things you can do differently, and you hope it's going to work," Vavic said of game-planning for a team his squad has already seen twice. "A coach spends time working hard to take advantage of the little things."

And those little things could on Sunday prove to be the difference in which team wins the big thing - the 2010 NCAA championship.

NOTES: In Saturday's consolation bracket action, UCLA cruised past Marist, 14-3. The Bruins' KK Clark scored four goals in the win, giving her six for the tournament.

UCLA will face the winner of Saturday's other consolation game, Michigan. The Wolverines upended Pomona-Pitzer, 11-3. San Diego product Lauren Orth led Michigan with a hat trick.

Pomona-Pitzer and Marist meet in the 7th place game Sunday at noon. Marist and UCLA follow at 1:35 p.m. The runner-up match-up pits LMU against Cal at 3:15 p.m., and the finale begins at 5 p.m., and will be broadcast live on CBS College Sports Network.