For the fourth straight year and eighth time in the past 11 seasons, Azusa Pacific has advanced to the “Elite Eight” of the NAIA Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament after upsetting No. 4-seeded Louisiana State University-Shreveport, 83-69, during second-round play Friday morning in famed Municipal Auditorium.
The Cougars employed a familiar tactic – its significant height advantage – to run roughshod on the LSUS. Senior forward Davon Roberts and junior center David Burgess combined for 39 points and 17 rebounds to dominate interior play. Meanwhile guards Mike Danielian and Kimarley Williams teamed to slow Pilot guard Josh Porter, holding him to just 13 points, 10 below his season average, on 6-for-17 shooting.
“Over the course of the season and playing in a tough conference like we do, we’ve been tested,” said Cougar coach Justin Leslie, who played in 3 NAIA Elite Eights and was an assistant coach in 4 others before taking over the reigns this season. “What you saw today was the culmination of the season.”
Two months ago few, if anyone, considered Azusa Pacific “Elite Eight” material. A set of Cougars unfamiliar with themselves and a first-year head coach had uncharacteristically lost 7 of 17 games and were unranked for only the second time in 10 years. A 13th consecutive trip to the NAIAs, the second longest active streak, seemed unlikely. However, since Jan. 22, the Cougars have won 14 of 17 games (all 3 losses were by 3 points or less), beating along the way the NAIA’s Nos. 4- 5- 13- and 14 (twice)-ranked teams.
“There is only so much teaching you do before you start playing, and as a result we took some early licks,” said Leslie. “We had some injury issues but we also had basketball immaturity problems.”
Not any more.
“Once we started clicking and finally gelling, we hit our stride,” said Burgess, who was 1 of 7 new Cougars to join the program last fall. “We made our run in the GSAC, beating good teams and climbing the ladder in the polls. It just took off from there.”
The Cougars executed to near perfection at both the offensive and defensive ends against LSU-Shreveport. Down early by as much as 8 points, Azusa Pacific went to its inside game. Roberts spurred a 15-3 run to close the first half by scoring 7 points, including 3 off a rare trey at the buzzer to give Azusa Pacific a 40-35 advantage at halftime.
“(At halftime) I drew up 5 things on the board that we had to do in the second half to be successful,” said Leslie. “In November there’s not a chance in the world that we see any of them executed. In December we might have got 1 or 2. In January and February maybe 2 or 3, but we performed all 5 in the second half today. If we don’t do any 1 of the 5, we don’t win. I’m so impressed and proud of my team.”
One of the keys was the Cougars’ entry passes into Burgess and Roberts on the blocks. If the ball got to them, LSUS seemingly had no way to stop either of them. Roberts finished with a game-high 22 points to go along with 8 rebounds. Burgess added 17 points and a game-high 9 rebounds.
On the shoulders of Burgess, Azusa Pacific pushed its second half lead to 12 points at 54-42 following a Burgess jump-hook in the paint. And when LSUS rallied back to within 2 at 60-58 with just over 8 minutes left in the game, Burgess came back with the game’s next 5 points to give Azusa Pacific breathing room with a 7-point advantage.
“We were creating angles and opportunities to get the ball inside,” said Leslie. “That was one of the bigger adjustments from our wings in how they were going to set things up so that they could feed the post. They did a good job.”
“Outside our NCAA Division I exhibition games, that was the biggest team we’ve faced this season,” said LSUS coach Chad McDowell. “They did a wonderful job exploiting our size difference. Whenever we finally decided to double the post, they did a great job of passing out and knocking down jumpers.”
Williams canned back-to-back 3-pointers to put Azusa Pacific back on top by 11 at 73-62, forcing the Pilots into a scramble mode over the final 4 minutes of the game.
“There’s no way you can take away our outside and inside games at the same time,” said Danielian. “If you take away our inside game, we’ll have shooters open. If they stay on the shooters, then the big guys have open lanes.”
Senior guard Matt Oliver came off the bench to chip in 16 points, 11 of which came at the free throw line. He also snagged 6 rebounds and tallied a team-high 11 assists.
LSUS put all 5 starters in double-figure scoring with Travis Cash leading the way with 17 points. Yet for the second straight NAIA Tournament game Azusa Pacific held the foe to less than 40-percent shooting, limiting the Pilots to just a 24-for-64 (.375) clip from the floor.
The Cougars move on to play No. 5 Mountain State University (W. Va.) in what is developing into one of the best intersectional rivalries in the NAIA. This will be the fifth straight year the 2 national powers have met on the hardwood, and it bears resemblance to the meeting 3 years ago when No. 9-seeded Azusa Pacific knocked off top-ranked and defending national champion Mountain State, 82-66, in a Saturday quarterfinal of the NAIA Tournament.
“We’ve had some amazing games, some fun games to watch and some fun games to be a part of,” Leslie said of previous games with Mountain State. “It’s one of those match-ups that bring out good things in both teams. I don’t expect anything to be different going into tomorrow’s game.”
For the second straight year LSUS has its season come to an end at the hands of Azusa Pacific. The Pilots, who lost to Azusa Pacific in last year’s NAIA Tournament first round, ends the 2008 campaign with a 31-3 record. The Cougars improve to 24-10 and secure another day in Kansas City, their traditional spring vacation getaway site.