IRVINE, Calif. -- After a pair of grueling regular-season matchups did little to separate them, California Baptist responded to last week’s Azusa Pacific overtime win with another overtime thriller that gave the Lancers their first win in 3 tries against the Cougars this season, 82-80, in Saturday’s GSAC Postseason Tournament semifinals at Concordia University.
“The hardest thing in college basketball is having to beat a team 3 times, especially a good team,” said GSAC Coach of the Year Justin Leslie. “They were pretty motivated to come back and play and make a statement.”
All 4 conference semifinalists are likely participants in the upcoming 32-team NAIA Men’s Basketball National Championship, held March 19-25 in Kansas City, Mo., and Saturday’s contest offered the winner an opportunity to claim the conference’s second automatic berth rather than an at-large berth to the national tournament. Still, at least for California Baptist, the game also served as an opportunity to recapture some momentum after dropping 4 straight road games to end the regular season.
Carl Ross sank a running jumper in the lane to lift the Lancers to an 82-80 lead with 3 seconds left in overtime, and it proved to be the game-winner when GSAC Player of the Year Mark Roussin stole the Cougars’ inbounds pass and ran out the clock.
“California Baptist was really fired up to come play this game, especially considering the way we beat them each time,” said Leslie. “They’re a good team, and they have some good players who really stepped up.”
Ross twice sank a pair of free throws to give California Baptist the overtime lead, the second pair pushing the Lancers ahead 78-77 with 51 seconds to play. After what appeared to be a deflected pass out of bounds from senior guard Matt Oliver was ruled not to have touched a Lancer defender, the Cougars sent Daniel Hestehauge to the line. The senior guard, who had not attempted a shot all game, sank 2 more free throws with 22 seconds left to give the Lancers a 3-point lead. Sophomore guard Mike Danielian knocked down his fourth 3-pointer of the game on the Cougars’ ensuing possession to tie the game at 80-80 with 14 seconds remaining.
“We made some shots (in overtime), but then our turnovers led to some easy opportunities for them to score,” said Leslie. “I thought we defended (Ross) well, he just threw up a great leaning double-clutch shot that bounced around and in.”
For the third straight game, Azusa Pacific had a sizable lead at its disposal midway through the second half, but the Cougars again backed off, leading to a California Baptist comeback and another wild finish.
A Danielian trey 5 minutes into the second half gave Azusa Pacific a 54-45 lead, and after the Lancers cut it to 5 points, Danielian’s fadeaway in the key was followed by a pair of free throws from All-GSAC senior forward Davon Roberts with 11:48 to play pushed the lead back to 9 points at 54-45. Matt Gonzales and Roussin sank 3-pointers on the Lancers’ next 2 trips down the court, but Oliver converted an eye-popping 3-point play with a twisting drive through the lane that ended with his back to the basket and his head tilted back to line up the shot. He sank the free throw for the accompanying Roussin foul to give the Cougars a 59-51 lead with 10:13 to play in regulation.
Roussin hit a pair of 3-pointers in a 12-3 run that gave California Baptist its first lead of the second half at 63-62 with 4:41 to play, the first of 4 lead changes and 4 ties in the final 5 minutes of regulation.
“In the postseason, your weaknesses over the course of the season are magnified in the end if you don’t make adjustments,” said Leslie. “We’ve played a lot of games in this stretch over a little more than a week, so we haven’t been able to practice. There are a lot of areas in which we’ve been slipping this last week that we need to clean up when we go to Kansas City, and we just haven’t had the opportunity to do it. We had some mistakes on the defensive end tonight that allowed them to score that were really uncharacteristic for us, and we had some mental errors that were a little surprising.”
Danielian hit another jumper in the key to swing the lead back into Azusa Pacific’s favor, but Davey Hopkins and Roussin knocked down 2 free throws apiece before Danielian tied the game at 67-67 with another 3-pointer with 2:29 remaining. Roberts answered both Lancer buckets in the final 2 minutes, but his leaning floater for the win drew the front iron as time expired to send the game into overtime.
Azusa Pacific’s first 10 baskets were scored by 8 different players, the tenth being a Kimarley Williams 3-pointer that capped a 15-3 run that also included back-to-back treys from Oliver and Peter Bond. The 5-minute run gave the Cougars a 24-18 lead with 7:48 left in the opening half, and freshman Caleb Burgess canned a pair of free throws with 5:41 left to give Azusa Pacific its largest first-half advantage at 31-23. Ross hit a 3-pointer and dunked on the fast break to tie the game at 37-37, but Oliver’s coast-to-coast bucket in transition following Kris Corso’s 3-point miss for the Lancers provided Azusa Pacific’s 39-37 halftime margin.
Danielian led all scorers with 24 points, shooting 9-of-15 from the field, and Roberts added 16 points and team-highs of 6 rebounds and 5 assists for the Cougars, who shot 55 percent (29-of-53) from the field. Roussin finished with team-highs of 20 points and 7 rebounds for the Lancers, but his evening was overshadowed by Ross’ crunch-time contributions that helped him to 19 points off the bench.
Both teams combined to shoot over 50 percent, both misfired on only 4 free throws and the rebounding margin was deadlocked at 27 apiece.
“The other thing we need to clean up is getting the rebounding margin in our favor,” said Leslie. “In games where we’ve struggled, we haven’t out-rebounded our opponents like we’re capable of. If we commit to rebounding the ball as a team, especially on the offensive end, it covers up a lot of weaknesses. California Baptist did a good job keeping us off the boards tonight. It was pretty even, and we’re not going to win games like we should when that’s the case.”
With the loss, Azusa Pacific drops to 23-10 overall, while California Baptist improves to 23-7 on the season. The Lancers clinched the conference’s second automatic berth into the national tournament by advancing to the March 11 conference championship game against Concordia, which claimed the conference’s first automatic berth by virtue of winning the regular-season title.