Top 50 Cal Sports Moments -- No. 27: Papa Bear, 2022

All-American Nikolaos Papanikolaou scored seven goals, three of them in the final 6 minutes of the fourth quarter, and the Cal men’s water polo team rallied from a 12-8 deficit to beat USC 13-12 for the 2022 NCAA crown 
Nikolaos Papanikolaou
Nikolaos Papanikolaou / Photo by Catharyn Hayne, KLC fotos

As the Pac-12 Conference era comes to a close after more than a century, we count down the Top 50 moments involving Cal athletics.

THE MOMENT: Roberto Valera scored the game-winner with 41 seconds left but only after Nikolaos Papanikolaou found the net three times in a span of 3 minutes, 12 seconds as Cal overcame a 12-8 deficit to beat USC 13-12 in the 2022 NCAA men’s water polo championship game.

THE STORY: With 6 minutes to go in the championship game of the NCAA tournament at Berkeley’s Spieker Aquatics Complex on Dec. 4, 2022, Cal star Nikolaos Papanikolaou was feeling a bit . . . self-conscious?

The defending national champion Bears, favored to repeat in their home pool, trailed USC 12-8. Papanikolaou was carrying a heavy load on the shoulders of his 6-foot-3, 242-pound frame.

“You’re down 4 and there’s 6 minutes left, all your friends there there and you have this vision in your head of what after was going to be like. And it doesn’t look like it’s going to be there,” the native of Athens, Greece said. “And you’ve got to keep playing.”

An hour later, as he tried to sort things out, coach Kirk Everist recalled having the same epiphany that perhaps came over his star player.

“Honestly, I’m having trouble remembering exactly what happened,” Everist said. “I know there was a feeling somewhere in the middle of that fourth quarter that we might have a shot. I’m really proud of these guys for not imploding.” 

Roberto Valera got the comeback started when he scored with 5:41 left to make it 12-9. Then the Papa Bear cranked up the pressure on USC and got the capacity crowd revved up.

He scored with 5:02 left, again at 3:22 and finally with 1:50 to go, tapping in a loose ball off a shot from Albert Ponderrada. The goal gave him seven for the game, the final three in a blur of action that tied the game at 12-12.

The Bears were a man down when All-America goalkeeper Adrian Weinberg stopped a shot and fed a quick counter-attack with a long pass to Valera, who put the ball in the back of the net with 41 seconds left for Cal’s first lead since 4-3.

“That was insane,” said Everist, whose Bears made it three straight national titles last fall. He could not remember a comeback of that magnitude, and Papanikolaou was trying to appreciate the moment when everything changed.

“We’re down by four . . . in water polo that’s a good amount of lead,” said Papanikolaou, who completed his career last fall by winning his third straight Peter J. Cutino Award as the nation's top player. “I wasn’t thinking about the score. And it just happened.”

* Top 50 Moment No. 28: Racial Cancellation

* Top 50 Moment No. 29: Cart Blanche

Only specific acts that occurred while the team or athlete was at Cal were considered for the Top 50 list, and accomplishments spanning a season or a career were not included. 

Leslie Mitchell of the Cal Bears History Twitter site aided in the selection of the top 50 moments.

Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo


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Jeff Faraudo

JEFF FARAUDO

Jeff Faraudo was a sports writer for Bay Area daily newspapers since he was 17 years old, and was the Oakland Tribune's Cal beat writer for 24 years. He covered eight Final Fours, four NBA Finals and four Summer Olympics.