RIVERSIDE, Calif. – The script isn’t well-written and the acting is average at best. The cinematography is pretty good sometimes, but getting to the end is agonizing. However, once there, that end is a doozie. It’s a cliff-hanger and worth sticking around to watch.
For the second time in as many conference games this week, an Azusa Pacific basketball game came down to the final seconds, but unlike the previous contest 4 days ago, the Cougars prevailed this time, edging California Baptist University, 66-64, to collect their first Golden State Athletic Conference win of the season.
“On an artistic scale from 1 to 10, this was probably a 4,” said Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie.
Fortunately for the Cougars, basketball counts points on field goals not style.
Junior center Reggie Owens scored 6 of his 12 points in an 8-0 Cougar run over the final 2 minutes of play to rally Azusa Pacific to its fifth win in the past 6 meetings with CBU and its third straight in Van Dyne Gym.
Getting to the victory, though, was difficult to watch.
The Cougars and Lancers combined for 44-percent shooting, 26 missed free throws and 32 turnovers. Together they scored just 54 points in the first half, and 2 of those came after the first half buzzer sounded when Azusa Pacific was awarded a pair of free throws off a Lancer foul. Caleb Burgess converted both, in what would eventually prove to be the difference in the final score, giving Azusa Pacific a 28-26 halftime lead.
Behind the play of junior guard Mike Caffese, the Cougars pushed their lead to as much as 5 on a couple of occasions in the second half before Cal Baptist’s Justus Von Wright showed up.
Scoreless through the first 26 minutes of the game, Von Wright came from nowhere to toss in 3 straight 3-pointers, spurring an 11-3 Lancer run that gave Cal Baptist its first lead of the second half at 46-43 midway through the half. Cal Baptist held the advantage for the next 9 minutes, even using another Von Wright trey to keep the Cougars at bay at 57-53 with 4 minutes remaining. The Lancers were still up by 5 following a Von Wright free throw with 3 minutes to go before the Cougars began their march to victory.
Caffese hit his only 3-pointer of the night, a bomb from the left wing, to pull the Cougars to within 2 at 58-56. The 2 teams traded a pair of free throws, Owens accounting for the Cougars’ 2 to initiate the game-clinching 8-0 run. Caffese then picked Lancer center Luke Evans and streaked down court for a lay-up to tie the game for the tenth time at 60-60.
Kelly Johnson then missed 2 free throws, part of a string of 4 consecutive misses at the Lancer charity stripe, and Azusa Pacific capitalized at the other end when Owens put-back a Caffese miss to give Azusa Pacific a 62-60 lead with 33 seconds left. Johnson then stepped on the end-line under the Lancer basket with 25 seconds, putting ball back to the Cougars and beginning a series of point exchanges that started with Owens knocking down a pair of free throws to put the Cougars up 64-60.
Davey Hopkins sandwiched a pair of lay-ups around 2 Dominique Johnson free throws to keep CBU within a field goal of the Cougars. However, when Johnson missed back-to-back free throws with 7 seconds left, the final period on the script hadn’t been dotted until Caffese forced CBU’s Kelly Johnson into a wild lay-up that went awry as the final buzzer sounded.
“We defended and rebounded tonight,” said Leslie. “We forced them into 10 second-half turnovers and out-rebounded them by 8 in the second half, and that was the game.”
Johnson, an All-American, led all players with 20 points, including 12 in the first half, to rebound from his poorest showing of the season, 7 points on 3-for-9 shooting in a GSAC-opening loss at home to The Master’s College.
“He carried us right off the bat tonight,” said Leslie. “He was the player that we need for the rest of the season.”
Johnson was the focal point of a raucous Lancer crowd after following a first-half air-ball with a deft jumper that he combined with his look and words to momentarily quiet the partisan faithful, who once they knew they had Johnson’s ear, never let him go unnoticed the rest of the night, particularly in the closing seconds when he was shooting free throws.
“That doesn’t affect me, and it’s actually fun,” said Johnson. “When I shoot my free throws I don’t hear anybody. I was mad at myself for missing the last 2 but it didn’t have anything to do with the fans.”
Freshman James Staniland came off the bench to score 11 points and snare 3 steals in 17 minutes of action.
Von Wright led Cal Baptist with 15 points, all in the second half.
The narrow result was expected. Including tonight, six of the past 7 meetings between Azusa Pacific and Cal Baptist have been decided by 4 points-or-less or gone into overtime.
And based on this week, it appears all Azusa Pacific games this season may come down to the end, making it worth staying for the credits.