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Defense leads U.S. men past Serbia in Riverside
RIVERSIDE The impressive perimeter strikes generated the most chants of “USA! USA!” from the crowd but it was a hard-pressing defense that powered the U.S. men’s water polo team to a successful Riverside debut Thursday night.
Before an early-arriving and energetic crowd of about 1,300, Team USA defeated Serbia, 9-5, at Riverside City College to improve to 2-0 in the teams’ four-match series.
The series continues Sunday at El Toro at 5 p.m.
USC’s McQuin Baron (Mater Dei) made 12 saves to lead the Americans’ defense but the 6-foot-9 goalie had plenty of help from his field defenders. Team USA held the European powerhouse to only one second-half goal, and that arrived with six seconds left.
“We’re working on playing a really strong press so we can feed our counter(attack) because we’re a really fast team and we condition really hard,” said U.S. attacker Josh Samuels (Villa Park), who also scored twice to share team-high honors with captain Tony Azevedo and Bret Bonanni (Mater Dei).
“Tonight, we wanted to put a lot of pressure on them. We have really good defenders that allow us to do that.”
In their 12-10 victory against Serbia on Tuesday at UC San Diego, the Americans played more zone defense. But on Thursday, U.S. coach Dejan Udovicic repeatedly instructed players to attempt to steal the ball on the perimeter.
The pressure seemed to wear down Serbia. The bronze medalist from the past two Olympics finished 1 for 8 on the power-play; Team USA went 4 for 7.
“We’re putting in good work,” Samuels said. “We have a lot more work to go. These guys are a big help to us. … This is one of the best teams in the world, and that’s what we want to be."
Stanford’s Alex Bowen helped anchor the U.S. power-play defense with a field-block with one minute left in the third that preserved a 7-4 lead. Azevedo then capped the third by firing in a crowd-pleasing, side-armed shot on a quickly-formed extra-man chance he earned by drawing a foul outside 5 meters.
Bowen stopped another power-play chance in the fourth with a steal. Baron made four of his saves in the fourth and even appeared to get a block from Cal attacker Luca Cupido (Newport Harbor) in the period on a rebound attempt in front of the goal.
“It’s not just me,” said Baron, who got the start after veteran Merrill Moses took his turn Tuesday. “It’s the defenders who made me look good.”