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No. 1 USC survives Stanford, Churnside
LOS ANGELES The MPSF men’s water polo tournament seemed most appealing Saturday for the underdog, which was one strike against top-seeded USC for its semifinal clash against Stanford.
The fourth-seeded Cardinal, with standout freshmen Bret Bonanni (Mater Dei) and BJ Churnside (Villa Park) and hot-shooting sophomore Alex Bowen, pursued their NCAA tournament aspirations with desperation.
But despite an eye-opening fourth period from Churnside, the Trojans still had enough energy to defeat Stanford, 11-10, to reach Sunday’s 3 p.m. final against Cal at McDonald’s Swim Stadium.
The third-seeded Golden Bears used three goals from Matt Russell (Newport Harbor) to overcome 15 personal fouls and defeat No. 2 UCLA, 12-9, in the other semifinal.
The winner of the MPSF tournament earns an automatic berth to next weekend’s NCAA championships at USC. But the Trojans (26-0), the four-time defending NCAA champion, were seemingly a lock to receive the one at-large berth to the NCAA tournament even before the MPSF finale.
USC coach Jovan Vavic said as much Saturday, adding that the Trojans weren’t physically primed for their duel against the Cardinal (16-6).
But after Churnside scored his second goal of the fourth period to trim USC’s lead to 9-8 with 2:35 left, the Trojans had plenty of work left.
Vavic’s son, Nikola, responded 30 seconds later by scoring on a direct shot after drawing a foul outside 5 meters on Bonanni. It was the junior’s team-leading 78th goal and 168th of his career, placing him fourth in USC history.
Bowen netted Stanford’s fourth goal of the fourth with 1:40 left to make it a one-goal again but USC’s Mace Rapsey back-handed in a rebound with 1:18 left to give the Trojans an 11-9 lead.
It was Rapsey’s second rebound goal, and a telling example of the small things the Trojans did correctly.
USC also scored twice in the second half on after-goal plays.
“We looked good at times, really good, and then at times sloppy,” Jovan Vavic said. “I would give us probably (a grade) of 6 out of 10, and that would be probably generous. … We did not taper (for this weekend). We had some hard workouts this week, and you can tell guys are getting a little tired. We'll be much better next week.”
Churnside and Bowen each finished with four goals while Bonanni added two.
"The little things went their way but little things go your way when you work hard," said Stanford coach John Vargas, the ex-Corona del Mar coach. "We had our opportunities. We came up short but 'SC is a good team."
Churnside scored on the man-advantage with nine seconds left to cap a five-goal fourth-period by the Cardinal. He also collected two assists and drew two exclusions for a Stanford power-play that finished 6 for 8 (USC went 1 for 5 on extra).
"He's a stud," Vargas said of Churnside. "(He's a) very competitive person, as well as Bret."
Kostas Genidounias scored four for the Trojans.
But what will motivate the Trojans on Sunday when their NCAA fate appears sealed.
"We always play to win," Jovan Vavic said. "You want to go to the NCAAs with a win. ... But if you lose, it's not the end of the year. It's nice to have that cushion."
Cal won despite losing Aleksa Saponjic and Collin Smith for the tournament for flagrant misconducts against Pepperdine on Friday. If the Golden Bears (17-7) don’t claim the automatic NCAA bid on Sunday, Cal coach Kirk Everist believes the Bruins (26-4) will be awarded the ticket to NCAAs based on their overall record.
“I think it (the final) is going to be a good game,” Everist said. “We always play ’SC tough.”