KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Azusa Pacific missed. Nothing more to it. The Cougars simply missed. They missed critical free throws. They missed lay-ups. And most of all, they missed opportunities.
Azusa Pacific let control of the game and a 12-point second-half lead slip through it hands as unseeded MidAmerica Nazarene University (Kan.) rallied for a 78-72 victory in the opening round of the 79th Annual NAIA Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament in Municipal Auditorum.
The loss is Azusa Pacific’s first NAIA first-round setback in 6 years and forces the Cougars to close the 2009 season with a 24-10 record.
Azusa Pacific used a stifling defense in the first 3 minutes of the second half to turn a 36-30 halftime advantage into a comfortable 42-30 lead by holding the Pioneers scoreless to start the half. The Cougars retained that double-digit lead at 48-38 with less than 11 minutes left in the half.
However, behind the jump shots of junior guard Brenton Bell, MidAmerica fashioned an 18-6 run over a 7-minute stretch to not only pull even but assume a 56-54 lead on a pair of Danny Hawkins’ free throws.
Bell drained a long trey to finally snap the Pioneers’ second half drought and ignite their march back into the game. It was 1 of 2 bombs he canned on his way to an 18-point performance, all of which came in the second half.
Bell converted a conventional 3-point play on a foul charged to Azusa Pacific’s David Stafford to get the Pioneers to within 6 midway through the half and shortly thereafter he buried another trey to change the complexion of the final 9 minutes, pulling MNU to within 3 at 50-47.
“The game got away from us in the middle of the second half when Brenton Bell took over,” said Azusa Pacific coach Justin Leslie. “The turning point was the ‘and-one’ on nothing against Stafford who was standing straight up. Bell jumps sideways and gets the ball to fall.”
The Azusa Pacific momentum was also thwarted following a Pioneer timeout when it was whistled for 5 straight fouls over a 6-minute stretch, capped by the odd call on Stafford. The Cougars still had opportunities, however, to keep MNU at bay, but they missed several lay-ups, including fast break ones. And to make matters worse, they missed 9 second-half free throws after going a perfect 5-for-5 in the opening half.
“We had opportunities to win if we hit our free throws,” added Leslie. “However, that was our Achilles heel early in the year, and boy it’s our Achilles heel at the end of the season. We missed ours, they made theirs.”
Freshman Marshall Johnson carried the Cougars throughout the night, scoring a career-high 25 points on 9-for-13 shooting which included a trio of 3-point baskets. Yet he missed 2 free throws with the score tied at 54-54. Moments later, MidAmerica had its first lead of the second half and its first since 6 minutes left in the first half when Hawkins canned his 2 free throws.
Johnson momentarily redeemed himself with a 3-pointer from the left side, but the 57-56 Cougar lead with 5:22 remaining in the game was Azusa Pacific’s last advantage of the night. Pioneer guard Vince Thompkins hit a short jumper in the paint, and after the Cougars missed a 3-point shot, Hawkins converted a high-arching short jumper over Azusa Pacific’s 6-foot-10 center David Burgess to put MidAmerica up 60-57 with 4 minutes left.
Azusa Pacific had no response the rest of the way, again missing successive free throws as MNU made its free throws instead to move out to a 66-60 lead with 1:46 left in the game.
The Cougars, who seemed out of control at times in a helter-kelter tempo that they created themselves, committed 12 turnovers while just 6 of their 28 baskets came off assists.
“We got great looks in the second half,” said Leslie, “but we missed so many lay-ups. And I can’t believe the silly unforced turnovers that we committed. Our assist-to-turnover ratio has been a strength of ours the entire year, but we failed to make good decisions tonight.”
Hawkins led the Pioneers with 22 points.