COSTA MESA, Calif. – It’s called “The Pit” for good reason. Vanguard's host facility is small, antiquated, crowded, hot and dreadfully noisy. And it’s a house of horrors for nearly any visitor who steps across the threshold.
Except for Azusa Pacific.
For some odd reason the Cougars love “The Pit” and instead turn its vices on the host. Sometimes in grand fashion, other times in heart-wrenching manners. Tonight was one of those wrenching victories.
Mike Caffese nailed a jumper in the key with 3 seconds left to force overtime and Marshall Johnson completed his late-game heroics with a game-clinching bucket with 35 seconds left as Azusa Pacific rallied for a 73-68 Golden State Athletic Conference victory at Vanguard Saturday evening.
The win is Azusa Pacific’s tenth straight at “The Pit” and its second straight on the GSAC road this season.
“It wasn’t a pretty game, and our shot selection was rather poor much of the night, but we played hard down the stretch and made things happen,” said Azusa Pacific coach Justin Leslie, who was a the Cougars’ starting center as 1999 junior when Azusa Pacific last lost in The Pit. “We played better in the second half, than we did in the first half, and we played better in overtime than we did in the second half.”
Johnson scored 10 of his 13 points in the final 8 minutes of play to lead Azusa Pacific back from a 7-point deficit. With the Lions holding a 57-50 lead with just over 3 minutes left in regulation, Johnson scored 8 straight points, nailing back-to-back 3-pointers followed by a put-back in the paint to give Azusa Pacific a 58-57 lead with 1:04 remaining, the Cougars’ first advantage since Johnson’s free throw gave Azusa Pacific a 17-16 lead with 6 minutes left in the first half.
“Marshall came out with about 5 minutes left in regulation with his head down and trying to check out because he hadn’t played particularly well up to that point,” said Leslie. “But in every game you’re going to get opportunities, some come early in the game, sometimes they’re in the middle of the game, or like tonight, they come at the end.”
Vanguard answered with an Andrew Ellis jumper and a pair of Gregory Scott free throws to go up by 3 at 61-58 with 17 second remaining in regulation. Dominique Johnson converted on 2 free throws with 11 seconds left to pull the Cougars back to within one, and when Vanguard’s Elvis Whitelow could make only 1 of 2 free throws, Caffese had the stage set for him. With 10 seconds left, he sprinted down court, maneuvered around one defender, and banked a floating jumper in the key to tie the game at 62 and give Azusa Pacific a 5-minute reprieve of overtime play.
“All the shots that we were getting before were because of Mike penetrating and kicking out,” added Leslie. “This time Vanguard stuck with each player so Mike had nowhere to go but up with the shot. It was a great shot.”
The Cougars made good of the second opportunity and proved that victory was eminent when their 2 worst free throw shooters -- David Burgess and Caffese -- each made a pair of free throws to open overtime. Kimarley Williams drove through the Lion defense for a lay-up and his only basket of the night to give Azusa Pacific a 3-point lead with a minute left. Marshall Johnson clinched the win with a put back of a Burgess missed lay-up for an insurmountable 72-68 lead with 35 seconds remaining.
Burgess led the way for Azusa Pacific with his fifth double-double of the season, registering 15 points and a game-high 10 rebounds. His back-up, junior Brayden Bell, collected 11 points in just 12 minutes of action.
“This was a very, very physical game, but that played in our hands,” said Leslie. “We’re deeper and better in the frontcourt. Dave played very well and was able to finish, and Brayden made some nice moves on the block.”
Ellis led all players with 20 points and Scott added 14 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists for Vanguard.
Azusa Pacific, which has won 20 of its past 22 meetings with Vanguard and is 31-5 vs. Lions since 1993, improves to 11-6 on the season, 4-3 in the GSAC. Vanguard falls to 4-11 overall, 3-4 in the GSAC.