SAN DIEGO -- His team actually took a 1-0 lead. By halftime, Stanford led 7-2 and the outcome was never in doubt, as the Cardinal cruised in the second half to a 12-3 victory that put them into Sunday’s national championship game.

“The problem with them is their relentless for four quarters. If you want to beat Stanford,” UC Irvine coach Dan Klatt said, “you have to play 32 minutes of really disciplined water polo.”

Now that challenge will fall on USC, which battled in the other semfinal Saturday in the 2012 NCAA Women’s Water Polo Championships.

“This is what we’ve looked forward to all season,” Stanford junior goalkeeper Kate Baldoni said after a game in which she was only beaten on a penalty shot and two 6-on-5 situations. “This is what we’ve prepared for, working hard every day in practice and it’s surreal that it’s here and we’re in the championship game tomorrow.

“We’re all very prepared, so excited and tomorrow’s going to be a big day for us.”

USC gets a Stanford (24-2) team that is trying to repeat as champion for the first time since UCLA won five in a row, the last in 2009.

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“UCLA doesn’t play as many people,” Stanford coach John Tanner said. “So the scouting report is shorter. USC uses a pretty full bench, so there are match-up concerns, but UCLA is very efficient about what they do. They’ve got plenty of weapons.

Both of Stanford’s losses were to UCLA, but it also beat UCLA twice; the Cardinal beat USC in both their meetings, both times by one goal.

Against UCI, which Stanford had beaten earlier this season 17-5, the outcome really was never in doubt midway through the first quarter.

“I’m very impressed with the way our team showed up and took on an attacking mentality from the opening whistle,” Tanner said. “We didn’t plan to go down by a goal, but from there on we were really terrific.”

Indeed they were. Freshman Ashley Grossman led with three goals, Pallavi Menon and Cory Dodson scored twice, and Alexis Lee, Kiley Neushul, Kaley Dodson, Cassie Churnsdie and Alyssa Lo added one apiece.

The spread might have been many more had it not been for the terrific performance of UCI freshman goalie Jillian Yokum, who had 14 saves.

“She was very impressive,” Tanner said.

Also, Stanford’s leading scorer, freshman Kiley Neushul (56 goals), was kicked out out of the game in the second quarter.

Stanford goalie, junior Kate Baldoni was also stellar in the net, stopping eight shots.

“Kate was awesome,” Tanner said. “Our 5-on-6 was even better because they knew Kate had things covered. They can take some more chances and even get a little bit out of position because they know she has their back and it also makes it even more exciting because we can counter-attack out of that.”

For that matter, the first goal she allowed was just 56 seconds in on a 5-meter penalty shot and the other two were on 6-on-5 situations in a whistle-happy game in which it seemed both teams were down a player at all times. UCI had 10 exclusions, Stanford nine, and Stanford also scored on three penalty shots.

“She had an incredible game,” Stanford senior Monica Coughlan said of Baldoni. “In general we had a great defensive game and Kate was the anchor for that. She had some great blocks when we needed them. She really stepped up which was exciting to see at this tournament.”

Yocum, who continually came up big for the Anteaters, was constantly under barrage.

“We were having to play so many minutes of defense with the amounts of exclusions early on in the game,” UCI’s Klatt said. “Credit to Stanford, I mean they’re a great team and they swung the game into their favor and to their style of play and we were just never able to get into our style and play the way we wanted to play.”

“Kate was fantastic in the goal and we also had a lot of field blocks and I was pleased with our 5-on-6, especially compared to yesterday,” Tanner said, referring to his team’s 17-5 opening-game victory over Pomona-Pitzer.

Baldoni will certainly be challenged Sunday regardless of which team Stanford plays.

“We’re ready for either opponent,” she said. “We’re just focusing on our water polo, making sure we play the defense we’ve been practicing all year, nice passing, good offense and I think we’ll be great.”

UCI (25-7) plays in the third-place game Sunday against the UCLA-USC loser. Klatt wasn’t about to pick a winner in the national title game.

“It’s hard to say. All those teams have played so many times against one another and they’re very familiar with each other’s style of play,” he said.

But he knew after Saturday that whoever plays Stanford had better be prepared to get back on defense in a hurry.

“I don’t think anyone has the counter-attack that Stanford has,” Klatt said. “The objective for their opponent is to try to hold them to a minimum on that counter-attack and unfortunately for us, that created a lot of opportunities for them today. If they can do that again and control the flow, they’ll be national champions.”