AZUSA, Calif. – Give the fans of MidAmerica Nazarene University half-a-second and they’ll gladly take an evening espousing the supremacy and talent of their basketball team. Of course when you’re the defending national champion and you rally from 17 down in the second half to keep alive the NAIA’s longest winning streak, perhaps you believe self-absorption is a right.
Led by player of the year candidate Danny Hawkins and his game-high 29 points, which included 17 in the second half, top-ranked MidAmerica Nazarene downed Azusa Pacific, 88-82, to close out the 21st Annual Cougar Classic. With the victory, Pioneers improve to 13-0 on the season and push their winning streak to 28 straight dating back to last year.
However, the winning streak and the top billing appeared to be in danger of falling all in one fell swoop when Azusa Pacific pushed a 40-34 halftime advantage to a whopping 17-point cushion at 54-37 just 3 minutes into the second half. The Cougars’ deft 3-point shooting combined with the inside play of senior forward Davon Roberts sparked a 14-3 second-half-opening run which in turn rattled the Pioneers and their travelling faithful, whose early chorus of self-praise had now turned into an ugly rage of denigration directed at anyone within earshot. Decorum and poise were abandoned in the stands.
The players, though, retained their cool.
There was plenty of time to come back, and MidAmerica Nazarene didn’t earn last year’s NAIA national championship or this year’s No. 1 ranking without some challenges along the way. The experienced Pioneers eventually settled and mounted a 13-0 run in which Hawkins’ scored 6 points to rally MNU back into the game at 61-59 following All-American Adam Hepker’s driving lay-up with 10:52 left in the game. Azusa Pacific was able to keep MNU at bay for another 4 minutes, but a Brenton Bell jumper, which was part of his 17-point performance, gave the Pioneers their first lead of the game at 70-68 with 7 minutes remaining.
The 2 teams traded the lead 5 more times over the next 4 minutes until Austin Boots’ 2 free throws with 2:24 left put the Pioneers back up 78-77. They never trailed again, though Azusa Pacific certainly had opportunities. Critical to the Cougars’ demise was their inability to secure a missed Hawkins’ free throw with 57 seconds left. In turn, MidAmerica converted the second opportunity with a Brady Small lay-up off a nifty Hawkins’ pass to give the Pioneers an insurmountable 84-80 advantage with 31 seconds left.
The rest was academic.
“We faced a team that knows how to win,” said Cougar coach Justin Leslie. “I was pleased with our effort and the majority of our play, but we learned some things tonight about doing the little things it takes to finish off a game. MidAmerica gave us a lesson in that. We’ll be better for tonight’s experience, but it would have been nice to hold on for the win.”
Roberts led Azusa Pacific with 25 points and 10 rebounds. Junior guard Peter Bond, in only his second start ever, tallied a career-high 16 points on 5-for-8 shooting from the arc.
Azusa Pacific falls to 8-5 and returns to GSAC play next Saturday (Jan. 5) when the Cougars host Hope International University in a 7:30 p.m. game.