NCAA Women's Water Polo: USC and Stanford to play for national championship

Fresh off semifinal victories on Saturday, USC will meet Stanford in the 2016 Women's National Collegiate Water Polo Championship Sunday at UCLA. It will be the fourth time that the Trojans and Cardinal match wits in the NCAA title game, with USC winning in 2010 and 2013 and Stanford emerging victorious in 2012.

USC

Center Brigitta Games scored three goals before fouling out early in the fourth quarter to pace the undefeated and top-seeded Trojans to a 9-6 win over a pesky Michigan team and book USC's first appearance in the national championship game since 2013. The Trojans will face Stanford at 5:30 p.m. PT Sunday for all the marbles.

Games scored twice in the first 98 seconds to give USC an early 2-0 lead, making it look like the Trojans could blow it open as expected. But Ali Thomason, Michigan's leading goal scorer, lasered one home from well beyond five meters that helped settle the Wolverines into the game. Michigan had quick responses after the next couple of Trojan strikes, trailing 3-2 at the half and 4-3 in the third quarter. 

When it mattered most, however, MPSF Coach of the Year Jovan Vavic's Trojans clamped down defensively. Michigan had a chance to even the score with a 6-on-5 opportunity early in the third quarter, but USC didn't even let the Wolverines take a shot. An 8-5 game heading into the fourth, USC didn't allow a goal in the final period until a five-meter penalty throw from Thomason with 36 seconds left found the net. The Trojans outshot the Wolverines 24-21, the result of USC forcing Michigan to either dump the ball on multiple occasions or take long-distance, low-percentage attempts on cage.

The Trojans finished 2-for-5 on the power play, while holding Michigan to just 1-for-7 on 6-on-5 opportunities. The Wolverines, already securing themselves their best-ever finish at the NCAA tournament, will play in the third-place game against the loser of the Bruins-Cardinal game.

Stanford

The quest for a 3-peat is still alive -- two-time defending national champion Stanford defeated UCLA 7-4 to set up a rematch of the classic 2013 national championship game won by USC in the longest NCAA women's water polo championship game ever (three sudden death overtimes, 45 minutes and 47 seconds of game time). Two-time All-MPSF selection Jamie Neushul paced the Card with a hat trick, her lob shot to make it a three-goal difference with 3:47 remaining putting the game on ice.

As evidenced by the final score, Stanford's defense played a huge role in the Cardinal's semifinal victory, getting big 5-on-6 stops at critical junctures and allowing the Bruins to only convert one-third of its power-play opportunities. Julia Hermann stood on her head in cage, stopping multiple shots in close with no defenders in front of her. The All-MPSF Honorable Mention goalkeeper who is coming off a knee injury that kept her out of the pool in 2015 tallied eight saves.

Dani Jackovich, Gurpreet Sohi, Kat Klass, and Madison Berggren also scored for Stanford, which never trailed Saturday against UCLA. Berggren's bar-in lob provided some insurance, giving Stanford a 6-4 lead with 5:28 left in the fourth. 

After the victory, Stanford got some props from Maggie Steffens, the two-time FINA Women's Water Polo Player of the Year who is redshirting the 2016 season to prepare for the Olympics with the United States national team.

UCLA

The Bruins were led by the tenacious performance of First Team All-MPSF utility player Mackenzie Barr, who scored two goals, drew two exclusions and amassed three steals. UCLA tied the game twice at 1-1 and 2-2 but were unable to pull in front despite taking eight more shots than Stanford (28-20). The Bruins, which won five straight national titles from 2005-09, lost to Stanford in the national title game each of the last two years, dropping the 2015 contest 7-6 on a penalty throw with 11 seconds left.

Arizona State

In consolation action, Arizona State defeated San Diego State 7-5, giving head coach Todd Clapper his 300th all-time victory as a collegiate head coach. The Sun Devils will play UC San Diego in the fifth-place game.

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