AZUSA, Calif – Perhaps it’s a little early to take bow, but welcome to Azusa Pacific, Mr. Reggie Owens. He certainly doesn’t waste time getting noticed.
Owens, the burly 6-foot-5, 270-pound transfer who earns his reputation by muscling out opponents under the basket, momentarily snuck outside the flying elbows and jabbing knees in the paint to drain an unsuspecting rainbow 20-foot jumper that lifted Azusa Pacific to an exhilarating yet exhausting 67-64 victory over Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Friday night in the opening round of the 23rd Annual Cougar Classic in the Felix Event Center.
For all the good work he produced down low tonight, and indeed it was quite impressive, Owens saved his best play for the end when he wandered to the perimeter on the left wing and with 27 seconds left in the game took a Mike Caffese kick-out pass and confidently stroked what essentially proved to be the game-winning basket, breaking a 64-all tie to put a ribbon on a 13-point, 10-rebound, 6-assist, 4-steal debut showing as a Cougar.
“Reggie is a good player,” said a smiling Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie. “He has deceptive athleticism. He has an ability to make plays close to the basket, mid-range and away from the basket.”
Owens made 5-of-7 shots and registered a double-double in just 23 minutes of play. He capped a late 11-2 Cougar run with a lay-up that gave Azusa Pacific a 62-55 lead, its biggest margin of the night and with just under 3 minutes to play.
However, Embry-Riddle, which came into the game ranked No. 14 in the NAIA Division II Preseason Poll, needed just 58 seconds to wipe out the entire Azusa Pacific advantage, registering the game’s ninth of what would be 10 tied scores with its own 7-0 run that knotted the contest again at 62-62 with 1:37 to play. After ERAU again tied the game at 64-64 on a Brett Rawlings put-back with 53 seconds left, Azusa Pacific methodically ran a play that allowed Owens to leak out to the perimeter where he was left wide open to make the long jumper with 9 seconds left on the shot clock and 27 in the game.
“We got after their guards all game and their legs were starting to go a bit,” said Leslie. “To be honest I was expecting their guards to help out, and I thought Reggie would have to make a pass to one of our guards to take advantage of the situation, but that’s now it worked out.”
Caffese tried to clinch the game with a midcourt theft that instead sent him to the bench with fifth foul and Embry’s Blake Touchard to the free throw line with 14 seconds remaining. Perhaps gassed by the high-intensity of the game or feeling the pressure of the moment or maybe just because he is a 40-percent free-throw shooter, whatever the reason, Touchard clanked both free throws and, after Marshall Johnson made 1 of 2 free throws, Touchard fired off a running 3-pointer that had little chance of finding the rim as time expired to give Azusa Pacific its ninth straight season-opening win.
Embry-Riddle led 36-31 at halftime, but Azusa Pacific shot just 39% (11-for-28) from the floor while Leslie employed 11 different players in an effort to get as many players as possible am early feel for the game and the new season. In the second half Azusa Pacific drained 15-of-31 shots (.484) and used a 15-3 run to overtake the Eagles and assume a 46-43 lead following a Mason Maynard tip. It was the Cougar defense, which had been high pressure all night, that finally produced a crack in a very efficient and smart ERAU offense, forcing the Eagles to miss 6-of-7 shots and commit 5 of its hefty 23 turnovers during a 6-minutes stretch. Azusa Pacific trailed just once the rest of the night, and it was ever so briefly after the Cougars answered with the aforementioned 11-2 run.
Maynard, who like Owens was making his Cougar debut after transferring from Loyola Marymount, finished with 13 points and 9 rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench. All-American Dominique Johnson led all Cougars with 15 points, including 10 in the first half. Sophomore Marshall Johnson finished with 10 points.
Embry-Riddle’s Eric Lorenzi led all players with 18 points. David Butler, who came in averaging 28 points and 12.5 rebounds was held to 11 points on just 3-for-6 shooting.
“All coach wanted me to do was to keep Butler off the boards and that’s what I tried to do,” said Mason, who admitted he hadn’t contributed in a game quite like he did tonight since his 2006 senior season at Mountain Ridge High in Glendale, Ariz. “I tried to stay aggressive on Butler, and that’s how I got a few of my first points. After awhile I felt that if I got the ball around the rim it was going in. This really feels good, and I hope I can play this part all the time or even better.”
The 23rd Annual Cougar Classic continues Saturday afternoon with Biola taking on Embry-Ridle at 1 p.m. followed by the Azusa Pacific hosting Evergreen State at 3 p.m.