Bears Advance To NCAA Title Match
LOS ANGELES – One guy seems to always score goals in the big moments. Another guy simply scores goals in all moments.
Between the two of them, they have the Cal men's water polo team on the doorstep of a national championship.
MPSF Player of the Year Nikolaos Papanikolaou scored the first two goals of overtime and junior Garrett Dunn registered the clincher with 19 seconds remaining, and the Golden Bears defeated UCLA 15-13 in the semifinals of the NCAA Championship on Saturday at Spieker Aquatics Center.
Second-seeded Cal (21-4) advanced to the NCAA title game Sunday against top-seeded USC.
"If you would have told me in mid-August we can just skip to the end and let it all ride, I'm going to take my chances in one game with these guys," Cal head coach Kirk Everist said. "I think we have a really balanced team and play really well together. USC has played really well all year, and so have we. It will be a battle."
The Bears put themselves in position to win their 15th NCAA championship by erasing a two-goal deficit at the end of the third quarter by scoring the first three goals of the fourth period to take a 10-9 lead with 4:38 to go. The Bruins scored with three seconds left in regulation to force overtime.
Papanikolaou, who leads the MPSF with 66 goals, was held scoreless in regulation but put Cal in front for good after tipping in a pass by freshman Roberto Valera to give the Bears a 13-12 lead with 1:26 to play in the first overtime. Papanikolaou did it again in the second extra session, taking a feed from senior Jack Deely to push Cal's lead to 14-12.
"Papa was pretty bottled up for most of the game," Everist said. "He just needed to find a window to just get it on his hand. The windows are pretty narrow for him. It wasn't anything we specifically talked about. We are just trying to attack the best we can and not get frustrated, take good shots, and hopefully make them pay for not allowing him to touch the ball much."
UCLA trimmed the lead to 14-13 with 2:14 left in the second overtime and needed to get one final stop to attempt to tie the game. But Dunn, with the shot clock inside five seconds, fired a shot into the high left corner of the cage to seal the victory.
The Bears feature five of the top-10 scorers in the MPSF, but Dunn has had some of the bigger moments of Cal's season. He scored the game-winning goal with 56 seconds left in a 14-13 victory over UC Santa Barbara and notched the game-tying goal that sent the Big Splash against Stanford into overtime, where the Bears ultimately won the game. He also had two goals and three assists in a 15-11 win over Princeton when Cal was undermanned due to injuries.
"We have the best shooters in the NCAA," Dunn said. "We have so many weapons, it's not really my role to take a lot of shots. But when they are focused on our other guys, it kind of opens things up for me later in the game, and I'm not really afraid of taking that shot."
Cal freshman Max Casabella had a spectacular NCAA Championship debut with six goals and two assists while Valera, the MPSF Newcomer of the Year, had five assists and two goals. Deely had four goals and two assists.
"It was a hell of a performance for a young kid," Everist said of Casabella. "He had a lot of experience playing against older players growing up in Spain's Youth National Team program, but at the end of the day he's a 19-year old kid. That's a pretty special performance."
The Bears and Trojans met three times during the regular season, with the teams exchanging one-goal victories before USC beat Cal 11-9 in the Third Place Game of the MPSF Championships. Cal will be attempting to win its first NCAA title since 2016. USC advanced to Sunday's final with an 11-8 win over UC Davis on Saturday.
"There's not a whole lot they are going to change or we are going to change," Everist said. "We have our strengths and weaknesses, and so do they. It's going to be a battle. They are extremely talented. We just have to play really good defense and make them work."