USC falls in Pac 12 title showdown at UCLA

Hocking’s return was not enough for the Trojans, as the Bruins clinched a second straight Pac-12 Championship.

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No. 8 USC fell to No. 3 UCLA 3-1 on Friday night in a de facto Pac-12 title match in front of a sellout crowd at Wallis Annenberg Stadium. A poor first half was too much for the Trojans to overcome, and the Bruins were crowned Pac-12 champions for the 13th time.

“The atmosphere was fantastic,” head coach Keidane McAlpine said of the packed house. “I was a little disappointed that we didn’t play better having already experienced those kinds of crowds, but we’re going to learn from it and use it.”

Spurred on by the more than 2,000 in the stands, UCLA dominated from the outset, playing nearly all of the opening 18 minutes in the USC half. The run culminated in a well-executed set piece that, after a deflection, sophomore forward Reilyn Turner smashed home to grab the opener for the Bruins in the 18th minute.

“The moment was a little big for us today,” McAlpine said. “We didn’t start the game with the proper energy, proper effort or proper intensity to win a championship game. They wanted it more. They gave more energy from the opening whistle.”

Just five minutes later, UCLA graduate midfielder Olivia Athens doubled the lead in incredible fashion. Athens received the ball in the box, popped it up over USC freshman defender Zoe Burns and chipped it over USC senior keeper Anna Smith and into the back of the net.

The Bruins, needing a win to clinch the title, took that 2-0 edge into the break along with an energized crowd that had gotten exactly what they came to see.

“You can’t win championships the way we played,” McAlpine said. “You can’t give away 30 minutes. You can’t give away 20 minutes. And we gave away minutes today.”

After missing the last three games with an injury, senior forward Penelope Hocking made her return for USC in the 25th minute. The Trojans managed to equal the Bruins’ shooting output in the remaining 20 minutes of the first half as Hocking registered their first shot on frame in the 37th.

USC’s all-time leading goal-scorer moved back to her preferred spot on the wing to start the second half as McAlpine went back to the 4-2-3-1 setup that saw his team through their program-record 11-game winning streak earlier this season.

With junior Croix Bethune up top, senior Savannah DeMelo in attacking midfield and freshmen Simi Awujo and Aaliyah Farmer as the double holding midfield pivot, the Trojans needed to find two goals to bring the title home.

“Aaliyah and Simi are better in the air,” McAlpine said of the changes. “In the first half, the tactic that they used was to dump balls in on top of our center backs. To have that duo in there gives them an opportunity to really head the ball.”

With the Bruins sitting deep, the Trojans enjoyed the majority of the possession in the second 45. They outshot UCLA 3-0 before finally breaking through in the 78th minute.

Junior forward Hannah White dropped a defender to the turf on a run that beat three UCLA defenders before she was taken down in the box, winning a penalty for the Trojans. Hocking stepped up and slammed it past the diving keeper to cut the deficit in half, momentarily pulling USC off the mat.

“Our competitive spirit is good,” McAlpine said of the second-half performance. “That’s something that we have learned. That’s something that we have developed. Now we just have to add it to the beginning and bring that same kind of effort and energy all the way through the 90.”

Hocking had a chance in front of goal deflected just one minute later, but that would be the last time the Trojans threatened the UCLA defense on the night. Graduate midfielder Marley Canales scored an Olimpico in the 83rd to put the game out of reach and seal the 2021 Pac-12 Championship for the Bruins.

After leading the Pac-12 for the entirety of the conference season, Friday’s loss saw the Trojans surrender the title on the final day. The result also likely leaves them sitting between a two or three seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

“I’d like to get a two [seed],” McAlpine said of Monday’s bracket reveal. “I think our season has warranted it. I hope the committee looks at the types of teams we’ve played and gives us some respect for that and the run that we went on.”

Regardless of where the committee ultimately places them, the Trojans are all but guaranteed to host their first-round matchup next week at McAlister Field.