LOS ANGELES - The two best women's water polo teams in the country do not like one another. The disdain USC and Stanford share is a natural development, considering they are the only schools that have won a national championship in the last nine years.
This was the only way the 2018 season could end, with the Trojans and Cardinal seemingly trying to tear each other apart, limb by limb, for 32 minutes. Their NCAA semifinal match last year, won by Stanford, set the tone. In that one, USC center Brigitta Games had two ribs broken in the second quarter, rendering her ineffective the rest of the match.
"That did not sit well with me or my players," USC coach Jovan Vavic said.
So, when the tension was at its highest during Sunday's NCAA championship game, when USC held a one-goal lead with 45 seconds left and Stanford called time out with a chance to send the game to overtime, the Trojans had that injustice in the back of their minds.
During the timeout, alone with her thoughts, USC goalie Amanda Longan just continued the conversation she'd been having with herself the last few minutes.
"I just kept telling myself, 'Do your job. You can cover a lot of cage. You're fast,' " Longan said. "I was trying to amp myself up to be ready for everything. I was trying to be everywhere at once."
Not many NCAA championship contests in any sport climax with a direct confrontation between national player-of-the-year candidates, but this one did. Twice. First, it was Makenzie Fischer firing a shot from far out that looked on target but was blocked by Longan. Possession stayed with Stanford. Then, it was Fischer again trying to find some rare space to operate against USC freshman sensation Paige Hauschild, who thwarted Fischer by drawing an offensive foul.
The Trojans ran out the final seconds, and Vavic, his assistant coaches and the USC bench plunged into the Uytengsu Aquatics Center pool. The Trojans had beaten the Cardinal, 5-4, to win the program's sixth national championship and fifth NCAA title, and the celebration was just getting started.
The small USC pep band, which kept the home crowd in it when Stanford led 3-2 late in the third quarter, blared the brass. Players wept and hugged and received kisses on the cheek from an emotional Vavic. When USC athletic director Lynn Swann came down to the deck to congratulate the drenched Vavic, the Yugoslavian native who had just won his 15th national championship pulled Swann with him back into the pool - a Swann dive of sorts.
"It's an unbelievable feeling. I've never felt it before," said USC sophomore driver Denise Mammolito, whose hat trick included both of the Trojans' deciding fourth-quarter goals. "It's just unreal."
USC's seniors, who won their second national championship, adding to their banner from 2016, had known since they arrived on campus that they would be hosting the NCAA championships for their final weekend of collegiate water polo.
"To have four years to look forward to this moment, this is truly incredible for me to go out with my best friends, my seniors, especially in our own pool," USC center Brianna Daboub said. "It's incredibly emotional. I feel ... awesome."
Stanford's players stood by, sullen, with their arms crossed or their hands on their hips, watching the Trojans' pool party. The Cardinal, led by the Olympian Fischer, were supposed to repeat as champions.
USC had been picked to finish third in the preseason poll.
"If nothing else," Daboub said, "it put a little fire into our bellies to prove everybody wrong."
Said Vavic, "This is the most competitive group I've ever had. And not necessarily the most talented. They all want to win as badly as the coaches do."
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