BERKELEY, Calif., - Nikolaos Papanikolaou had seven goals, Roberto Valera gave California the lead with 41 seconds left and the Golden Bears scored five straight goals to stun Southern California 13-12 and win their second straight NCAA men’s water polo championship on Sunday.
Cal (23-2) beat the Trojans (20-7) by an identical score last season when Papanikolaou had a field block in the closing seconds to preserve the win. It was the Golden Bears record 16th championship and they improved to 7-1 against USC when playing for the title.
USC led 12-8 when Massimo Di Martire scored 47 seconds into the final quarter. Valera started the Bears’ comeback when he scored with 5:02 left to play. Papanikolaou scored a no-look goal from in front of the net on a lob from Jack Deely to get Cal within two. Papanikolaou scored on power play when he tapped in a rebound to get the Bears within a goal with 3:22 to go.
Papanikolaou tied the game on a power-play goal with 90 seconds left and Valera followed with his winner.
It was the fifth national championship for Cal coach Kirk Everist and he noted ‘Papa’ was the difference.
"We were struggling and USC played great," he said. "Papa came up with a few great shots. We were riding him all game.
"It was a great effort by our guys. They didn’t give up and lose hope. They kept rollin’ and lookin’ for an opportunity and pounced."
Papanikolaou, who earned MVP honors despite being surrounded by four Trojan defenders most of the match, connected on 7 of 9 shots and drew seven exclusions which led to half of the Golden Bears’ 14 power plays. Valera finished with four goals on eight shots. Adrian Weinberg had 12 blocks and two steals in goal — his second steal came with 7 seconds left to preserve the victory. Deely finished with a goal and four assists.
Jake Ehrhardt, Max Miller and Di Martire all scored twice for the Trojans. Kyle McKenney blocked eight shots in goal.
Papanikolaou scored three straight goals for Cal, the last one with one second left in the first quarter for a 4-3 Golden Bears lead.
Ashworth Molthen scored on a power play in the final minute and Tom McGuire’s natural goal with two seconds left gave the Trojans an 8-6 lead at halftime.
Cal’s only two losses this season came from Stanford by scores of 12-11 and 12-9.
The Trojans, with 10 titles under their belts, have been in every championship match since 2005 — with the exception coming in 2019 when Stanford beat Pacific in the finale.
The Golden Bears are the first team to successfully defend their title since UCLA did it in 2014-15.