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A Leap of Jubilation

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February 29, 2008
Gary Pine
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AZUSA, Calif. –By his own admission David Burgess was awful. He couldn’t catch. He couldn’t pass. He couldn’t defend. And he definitely could not make a shot.

But the 6-foot-10 center can leap around the basket. So at halftime he apologized to his teammates and told them he’d make amends. Did he ever!

Burgess scored the final 5 points of regulation, including a tip-in with 4 seconds left to force overtime, and pave the way for the NAIA’s No. 15-ranked Azusa Pacific’s improbable 85-81 Golden State Athletic Conference comeback victory over No. 13 California Baptist University Friday night at the Felix Event Center.

The crucial win gives Azusa Pacific sole possession of second-place in the GSAC with 1 game to play, and keeps alive the Cougars hopes of a 14th GSAC championship in the past 16 years. California Baptist, on the other hand, has its hopes of a first-ever GSAC crown dashed, primarily at the expense of Burgess’ heroics and the late-game play of senior guard Matt Oliver.

The Lancers were in control all night and held the lead for all but 54 seconds of regulation. They were up by as much as 11 in the first half, and answered every Azusa Pacific second-half run with clutch baskets that time and again kept the Cougars at bay. Until the end.

With 35 seconds left in regulation, Cal Baptist seemed to have the game in hand, leading by 6 at 74-68. However, the Lancers missed 3 free throws, including a pair by 80-percenter Mark Roussin, and the Cougars cashed in on the opportunity. Oliver made a driving lay-up, but missed 2 subsequent attempts. Yet both times Burgess was there to clean up, getting fouled on the first put-back, and thus, with the free throw, cutting the Lancer lead to 2 at 75-73 with 19 seconds left. Then following the Roussin misses with 13.3 seconds, Burgess, who missed several tip-ins through the night, tipped in another Oliver miss to tie the game at 75-75.

“I was playing like an anxious freshman in that first half,” said Burgess. “I was rushing everything, maybe because it was a big game. I told the guys I’d pick it up, and in the second half I guess I just wanted some rebounds more than others.”

In the overtime, Oliver opened with another lay-up to give Azusa Pacific only its second lead of the night and its first since a short-lived 37-36 advantage less than 2 minutes into the second half. This time though, the Cougars never trailed again, making 8-of-10 free throws (this from a team that is ninth in the conference in free throw percentage) over the final 2 minutes to hang on for the upset and sweep the season series from the Lancers.

“Back in January, after we had lost 3 of 4 GSAC games, I told the guys we had to win 11 of our final 13 to get back to the national tournament,” said Cougar coach Justin Leslie. “We’ve been playing ever since to get to Kansas City (site of the NAIAs) and this was win No. 11 tonight. I think we’re going.”

Indeed the Cougars are on quite a ride, having won 8 straight and 11 of 12 to improve to 21-8 overall, 14-5 in the GSAC, a game behind frontrunner Concordia University, which closes the regular season at home against Cal Baptist Monday night while Azusa Pacific visits arch-rival Biola University. A Cougar win coupled with a Concordia loss gives the Cougars a share of the GSAC crown and the No. 1 seed for next week’s GSAC Postseason Tournament.

But first things first.

Oliver scored a team-high 20 points tonight, tallying 17 after halftime, and was responsible for 7 of the Cougars’ 10 points in OT. Todd Martin added 16 on the strength of 3 treys, and GSAC Player of the Year candidate Davon Roberts scored 16, though he was frustrated by a Lancer defense that continually limited his looks and opportunities to score.

“Their defense collapsed in the middle on Dave and me, making it hard to move,” said Roberts, “but it left our guards and Todd open and they made some big 3s.”

And while the perimeter shooters were indeed knocking them down, it was Roberts, a rare 3-pointer shooter himself, who buried the most important 3-ball of the night, and it took some courage on his part. He badly missed 2 attempts from the arc in the first half, including an air-ball that the Cal Baptist fans continually reminded him of the rest of the evening. Nonetheless, with Azusa Pacific trying to rally out of an 8-point deficit in the final 5 minutes, Roberts stroked a perfect 3-point shot from the top to pull Azusa Pacific to within 2 at 70-68 with 1:19 remaining in regulation.

“I was just wide open, and no one can keep missing them all night,” Roberts simply said.

Cal Baptist sandwiched 4 free throws around a Cougar miss to put the lead back to 6 with 40 seconds to play. Enter Oliver and Burgess with their plays of the game.

“We sped up the game over the final 3 minutes, and that tends to play in my favor because we attack the basket a lot more,” said Oliver, who registered only the third 20-point game of his career but they’ve all come against nationally-ranked teams (22 vs. Concordia last year, 21 vs. Cal State San Bernardino this year and now 20 vs. Cal Baptist), and they all resulted in Cougar victories.

“At this point in season, tricks and special plays aren’t going to work since we know each other so well,” said Leslie. “Tonight was about lining up and making plays, and we had a lot of different guys step up. If Todd doesn’t make shots early, we’re dead in the water. It Matt doesn’t score late, we’re in trouble. If Kimarley Williams doesn’t shut down their point guards who were hurting us, we don’t win. If Dave doesn’t rebound, and this may be the best offensive rebounding performance by a team I’ve ever seen, then we don’t win.”

The GSAC’s leading rebounding team, Azusa Pacific out-rebounded Cal Baptist, 46-30, which included a whopping 22 on the offensive glass, translating into 22 second-chance points. Burgess led the way with a career-high 17 rebounds, but for this leap night, he’ll be best remembered for his leap that changed the game.

“I haven’t had too many baskets period in my college career,” said a smiling Burgess, “so I’d have to say that that put-back was the biggest of my career.”

Cal Baptist, which was paced by Roussin’s game-high 21 points, rolled out to a 24-13 lead at the 8-minute mark of the first half. Matt Gonzales scored 9 of his 13 points in the opening 20 minutes, guiding the Lancers to a 34-31 halftime lead. In the second half, the Lancers consistently led by 6 points, and then thwarted 6 different Cougar opportunities to at least tie the game if not take the lead. A Roussin 3-pointer with 5 minutes left in regulation put the Lancers up 66-58, but the Cougars answered with a 17-9 run to close out and move the game into overtime.

With the setback, Cal Baptist falls to 21-6 overall, 13-6 in the GSAC and drops to third place in the conference for the first time this season.