LOS ANGELES — Fight On is the motto of USC, but UC Irvine women's water polo coach Dan Klatt can definitely relate.
For the 20th time in 20 contests against USC, in the 14 seasons since it became an NCAA sport, the Anteaters failed to surmount the competitive hill, or perhaps more correctly a tsunami, created by the four-time national champion that is aiming to defend its crown this year in its own pool.
The latest installment was a 14-11 verdict in the quarterfinals of the NCAA championship on Friday at USC's Uytengsu Aquatics Center.
It was the third win this season for USC against its Southern California neighbor. No. 3-seeded USC (25-3), along with fellow MPSF members Stanford, Cal and UCLA, have placed a virtual lane line between No. 6-seeded UCI (24-8) and the kind of postseason success the 'Eaters long for.
But Klatt and his players refuse to give up the fight. After Friday's setback, which sent the 'Eaters into Saturday's fifth-place semifinal against San Diego State at noon, Klatt and junior goalie Jillian Yocum refused to acknowledge the existence of any gap in talent between UCI and USC.
"It comes down to experience," said Yocum, who made four of her 11 saves in the first quarter, after which UCI trailed only 2-1. "[USC] has a little bit harder schedule than us, because of their conference. I don't think it has anything to do with the athletes. It's pretty evenly matched."
Klatt, who said his team took a step forward from the 16-5 loss at USC on April 6 (USC also prevailed, 8-2 in a Feb. 9 tournament clash in San Diego), said he would take his athletes against the USC roster every time.
"To be honest, I think it's just a matter of belief," Klatt said. "I think we fielded a great team. It's about us just figuring out a way to feel like we can win that game … Their experience came into play and that's what we have to break through. We have to take the good athletes that we have and find a way to keep getting that experience in these kind of opportunities and hope that one day that experience will lead to a breakthrough and a win."
Klatt said his team's inability to defend what he calls "the box" an area five meters out between the goal posts, helped USC figure out a way to advance to a semifinal matchup against No. 2-seeded UCLA on Saturday at 5:15 p.m.
UCI scored with two seconds left in the first, second and fourth periods to help its cause. The first quarter-closing goal by Cambria Shockley cut the deficit to 2-1 and Jessy Cardey's tally just before half pared USC's lead to 6-4.
"I thought [the late goals in the first and second quarters] kept us in the game," Klatt said. "I thought that was really important.
"I thought we let the game get away from us in the third quarter a little bit," Klatt said. "[The hosts] scored five goals in the third quarter and I think that took the wind out of us."
Klatt said Yocum's play was also a positive.
"She was great," Klatt said of Yocum, who made three saves in both the third and fourth quarters. "In the first quarter, we wouldn't have even been in the situation we were in, if she didn't start the way she started. She came out ready to play and when we were a little bit sloppy in the beginning, she kept us in the game and allowed us to right the ship and stay competitive.
"But by not defending that area [in front of the cage] well, I think that's where we took the game out of her hands. She was really playing well and I think by allowing them to attack that middle area, it made it a lot harder [for Yocum] to defend."
Offensively, Cardey, who upped her school all-time scoring record to 220, Shockley, Hannah Croghan and Hanna Lancaster had two goals apiece for UCI (24-8).
Danielle Warde, Ambyr Stewart and Kelsey Thornton had goals for UCI.
Monica Vavic, a three-time All-American and the 2013 NCAA Player of the Year, led USC with three goals.
Stephania Haralabidis, a freshman out of Corona del Mar High, scored twice for the winners, who received single goals from CdM product Ionna Haralabidis and former Newport Harbor standout Kaleigh Gilchrist.
Newport Harbor product Avery Peterson was among 14 USC players who played.
Yocum said there is progress when it comes to closing the gap with the elite programs.
"We definitely improved from the beginning of the season to the end," Yocum said. "From the last time we played [USC], we improved in every detail."
"When you show up and play the national champion, you have to expect a really good force coming at you," Klatt said. "For a good period of the game, we did a nice job of scoring goals at important moments to stay in the game … I was proud that we came back at the end. We kept fighting."
In UCI's bid to succeed at the next level, the fight goes on.