Down by one goal with six seconds left in Sunday’s NCAA men’s water polo final, USC head coach Marko Pintaric called his last timeout to draw up a play that could tie the score and force overtime.
The Trojans passed it around the perimeter and got off a shot from the right of the goal but defender Nikolaos Papanikolaou stuck his hand out to block the ball into the air as the clock reached zero and California celebrated a 13-12 triumph at UCLA’s Spieker Aquatics Center.
“We ran the play we were practicing all week to see if we could draw an ejection or get a goal, it just didn’t work,” said USC senior driver Jacob Mercep, who scored the Trojans’ second goal, assisted on three others, made the All-Tournament team, and finished the season with a team-high 47 goals.
It was the 15th NCAA title and first since 2016 for the second-seeded Bears (22-4), who beat UCLA 15-13 in overtime in the semifinals Saturday to earn another shot at the top-seeded Trojans, who had won two of the teams’ three prior meetings this season, including an 11-9 victory for third place in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championships at Stanford a week earlier.
“We didn’t play great defense against them the last time so we wanted to match their energy and on that last play have the right guys on the right people to make it as difficult for them as we could,” Cal coach Kirk Everist said. “To come down here and pull this off we knew we’d have to play down to the wire. USC and UCLA are two incredibly talented teams that each present different challenges, but we were fortunate to make a couple more plays here and there.”
USC edged Cal 12-11 in the final of the MPSF Invitational in Berkeley on Sept. 26 before the Bears turned the tables with a 7-6 win in the teams’ MPSF matchup on Oct. 9 at USC.
Momentum hung back and forth in a tense struggle Sunday that produced six lead changes and seven ties.
Cal’s Nikos Delagrammatikas skipped a shot through a maze of hands to give the Golden Bears a 13-12 lead with 28 seconds remaining. USC was unable to find the hole set on its ensuing possession, prompting Pintaric’s timeout to talk things over.
“Water polo is won and lost on penalties and man-advantage situations,” Pintaric said. “It’s tough to get to the finals again and lose, but I’m proud of the way this team fought all year.”
USC (18-3) was riding high after beating UC Davis 11-8 in the semifinals to earn its 24th trip to the finals. The Trojans were seeking their 11th national title and their first since 2018. They lost to UCLA 7-6 in the 2020 final (which was delayed until March) after defeating Cal in the semifinals.
Senior goalie Nic Porter had eight saves and three steals and is No. 4 all-time on USC’s career saves list with 671. Redshirt junior Hanne Daube led the Trojans with three goals and three assists, fellow All-Tournament choice Ashworth Molthen had three goals and Wyatt Barker added two.
Papanikolaou, the MPSF player of the year, had two goals (raising his season total to 68), Roberto Valera had three and Max Casabella led the Golden Bears with four. Goalie Adrian Weinberg made 13 saves, one on a five-meter shot.