SAN DIEGO – The fourth time was the charm against UCLA.

Will the third time be the magic number against Stanford?

Upstart Southern California will find out on Sunday when it takes on the Cardinal in the title game of the 2012 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Championship.

“It’s exciting. We played them twice in their own pool and I’m looking forward to playing them in a neutral site,” USC coach Jovan Vavic said.

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No wonder. In the Trojans’ second match of the season, in the Stanford Invitational on Feb. 4, USC lost to the defending national champions 8-7. In the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation regular-season match between them April 7, the Cardinal won again 9-8 in overtime.

“We have two tough losses to them. We lost by one goal both times, so I think it’s time to beat them,” USC junior goalkeeper Flora Bolonyai said. “I think we have a good chance. It’s going to be 50-50 for both teams.”

It’s a familiar theme for USC (23-5), which had lost three times previously to UCLA by one goal in each game before shocking the Bruins 12-10 Saturday in the national semifinals at San Diego State. For that matter, its five losses this season were only to UCLA and Stanford.

“We played them at their place [in the OT loss] and we were actually up 6-3 [with two minutes left in] the third and up 7-5 in the fourth,” Vavic said. “I’m really looking forward to playing them at neutral site. It’s going to be a great game. It’s going to be another one of those exciting championships.”

Vavic knows championships. His USC men have won the last four NCAA titles, while his women are going for their fourth overall and second in three years. To get into this position, USC had to avenge the three losses to its most bitter rival, crosstown Los Angeles foe USC.

His daughter, freshman Monica Vavic, had four goals, including a big shot from outside to open the scoring and set the tone. Hungarian junior Patricia Janesco also had four goals as she took the most shots ever for her, seven. Kaliegh Gilchrist added two and Chelsea Silvers and Colleen O’Donnell one each.

“They hit some really nice shots,” UCLA coach Brandon Brooks said. “Ultimately I thought we got beat. I don’t think we beat ourselves.”

UCLA thought it could have shot better, but it had to give credit to USC sophomore goalie Bolonyai, who will be the Hungarian goalie win the London Olympics this summer, made eight saves.

“This was a very exciting game. I’m sure it was exciting to watch, it was exciting to coach,” Vavic said. “This is what water polo games should be. Lots of scoring and up-and-down action. I thought our girls did a great job offensively [Saturday]. We attacked the cage and our shots were amazing.”

That wasn’t necessarily the case in the previous meetings with UCLA, losses of 8-7, 6-5 and, in the MPSF tournament semifinals, just 4-3. And it’s pretty well documented that regardless of the sport, beating a team a fourth time is tough.

“Absolutely. It’s really hard not to consider the history between the teams,” said UCLA senior KK Clark, who scored twice against USC. “We’ve seen them I don’t know how many times. It seems like we always match up against them in tournaments and in semifinals and like that. We’ve seen them quite a few times this year, but it’s no excuse. We know their players really well.”

Sarah Orozco scored three goals for the Bruins, Emily Greenwood three more and Emily Donohoe two, but the Bruins went more than four minutes late in the fourth quarter without finding the net after pulling to 11-8.

“It is difficult. Any time you play SC, any time you play a rivalry game, you would expect it would be a hard-fought close game,” Brooks said. “There were back-to-back goals so many times. That was two teams fighting.That’s the beauty of sport and it hurts to be on the losing end.

“Playing them a fourth time and facing the prospect of beating them a fourth time in the same year probably made it more difficult because they felt that feeling of losing and it made them that much hungrier this time when we played them.”

The USC roster has just three seniors and really only one plays a lot and Vavic substitutes liberally, to say the least. It’s not uncommon for him to rotate in six new players. Accordingly, it took longer for USC to come together than other teams might have.

“This is the best game we’ve played as a team this season,” Vavic said, who admitted it has been a season-long process to get USC to its best at this point.

“We are a young team and we discussed it early in the season that it was going to take some losses for us to learn from them. We are peaking. We have been playing good water polo the last four or five weeks. I’m really happy was a day we showed up and did everything we had to do.”

And now the Trojans get another crack at Stanford.

“UCLA is the team we want to beat more than anybody else,” Vavic said. “There is no secret about that. When we beat them in the NCAA it’s doubly sweet. We will enjoy it for another hour and then get ready for Stanford.”

And who will win?

“It’s going to be a really high-scoring game,” UCLA’s Clark said. “USC just got over a huge hurdle and probably has a lot of momentum. But I don’t know who will win.”

“You look at their games this season and it’s been a one-goal game each time,” Brooks said. “So I really have no idea. I think that Stanford has a lot of confidence and I think this win gives SC a lot of confidence. But I honestly couldn’t tell you who is going to win.”