Stanford junior Maggie Steffens is used to getting a lot of attention from her opponents. After all, she's a two-time FINA Women's Water Polo Player of the Year, an international award.
USC's game plan was to keep the ball away from Steffens as much as possible. It didn't quite work.
Steffens scored four goals and second-ranked Stanford beat the Trojans, 9-8, in a semifinal match of the NCAA championships Saturday at Avery Aquatic Center. The Cardinal (24-2) advances into Sunday's 5:30 p.m. title game against top-ranked UCLA, which beat California, 9-5, in the other semifinal.
Stanford has beaten the Bruins in two of their three meetings this season, though the teams are so close the aggregate score is 22-21 in favor of the Cardinal. Each of their three games have been decided by one goal, including once in overtime.
"We need to play the game we always," Stanford senior Ashley Grossman said of Sunday's game. "We'll play to our strengths, have fun and take a few breaths. It's an awesome opportunity to show everybody what we can do."
Steffens thrives under pressure and she showed it again against the Trojans, who tried to double-team her as often as possible.
"The great thing about water polo is that there are six other teammates in the pool with you," Steffens said. "So matter how much pressure you're under, you have a whole team behind you. No matter what kind of adversity you face, there is a team that can step up when you need them."
Stanford never trailed in the contest but did face several anxious moments, including the final moments when Kiley Neushul chased down her own missed shot, allowing the Cardinal to safely run out the clock.
"We got off to a good start and made some big plays," Stanford coach John Tanner said. "We played good defense throughout and the few times we lost momentum, I tho0ught our team responded well."
The Trojans never let Stanford get too far away, even though Jordan Raney's goal at 5:43 of the second period put the Cardinal ahead for good. Stanford's lead never felt comfortable until Neushul grabbed the ball in the waning moments.
"It was a great game to watch," USC coach Jovan Vavic said. "Both teams played hard. Unfortunately we ran out of time. A couple of bounces here or there and it could have been a different game."
Grossman scored with 5:10 left in the third period, giving Stanford its biggest advantage at 8-5. The Cardinal scored once over the final 13 minutes and that was a penalty shot converted by Steffens.
Monica Vavic scored with less than two minutes to play in the third and Stephania Haralabidis converted a penalty shot early in the fourth period as USC closed to within 8-7 before Steffens scored.
"Stanford is a championship caliber team and have been all season," Vavic said. "They stepped up. Maggie hurt us the most. She's one of the best players in the world. Our plan was to focus on her and not let her touch the ball as much as she did. She creates opportunities. She knows how to get open."
Gabby Stone recorded nine saves for the Cardinal, several at point blank range.
"USC is an awesome opponent," Grossman said. "They always have tricks up their sleeves. Our resilience on defense pulled us through. It was really a fun, challenging game to play."