AZUSA, Calif. – Vanguard is pressing charges. Azusa Pacific is a thief, and there are plenty of witnesses to the crime.
Azusa Pacific stole a victory from Vanguard Saturday evening in the Felix Event Center, rallying from 13 down to beat the Lions, 78-73. The Cougars scored the game’s last 10 points over the final 2 minutes and didn’t secure its first lead of the second half until 31 seconds remained in the game. No one saw this win coming, not even the Cougars.
“We absolutely stole one,” said Azusa Pacific coach Justin Leslie. “We had a great 4 minutes of basketball. That’s it.”
Indeed Vanguard out-played Azusa Pacific for the first 36 minutes of the game, seemingly headed toward its second victory in its past 3 visits to the Felix while keeping the Cougars winless at home in 4 GSAC games this season. Then something happened on the way to victory – Azusa Pacific countered with play that had a purpose.
“We were scared and soft,” said Leslie. “Vanguard is big and physical, but if you don’t go after that and attack it, you’re dead in the water. When it counted, we made some great hustle plays with some loose balls that turned into transition opportunities that we finally converted. We’re very fortunate to have gotten out of here with a win.”
Vanguard, which rode the hot hand of Dennis Heenan to a 16-3 run and a 32-19 lead with just under 6 minutes left in the first half, weathered nearly every Cougar attempt to get back into the game, and with just over 8 minutes left was still up by 10 at 64-54 following a pair of Greg Scott free throws. Azusa Pacific whittled back to within a pair but when Mitch Boyce drained a long trey with 2 minutes left to keep the Lions on top at 73-68, it just seemed the night belonged to Vanguard.
But the Lions didn’t score the rest of the game, and everything right that they had performed for 39 minutes and 15 seconds was negated on one back-breaking play, an ill-advised intentional foul by Elvis Whitelow.
With the lead at 73-70 and less than a minute to go, Vanguard turned the ball over on a Heenen bad pass. As Azusa Pacific’s Dominique Johnson streaked in the opposite direction toward a break-away lay-up, Whitelow sent Johnson flying with a foul across both arms, putting Johnson at the line and then giving the ball to the Cougars out of bounds
Johnson made both free throws to pull the Cougars to within 1, and on the ensuing possession, Reggie Owens converted a nifty up-and-under lay-up with 31 seconds left to give Azusa Pacific 4 points in one possession and its first lead at 74-73 since the opening minutes of the game.
“We were very fortunate that Whitelow didn’t allow Dominique to go in for a breakaway dunk,” said Leslie, “because we would have been in a situation still down with less than 40 seconds, having to get a stop or potentially having to foul.”
Following a Vanguard timeout, Scott managed a jumper in the key that lipped around the rim and fell off into Owens' hands. An 85-percent free throw shooter, Owens knocked down both free throws to set up one final Lion attempt to push the game in overtime. Scott got a good look at a trey from the left wing, but the shot banged off the front iron, and again Owens snagged the rebound, getting fouled and making 2 more free throws with 2 second left for the final margin of victory.
“We made our free throws down the stretch where we were a nightmare up until that point,” said Leslie.
Indeed, the Cougars made 8 straight free throws in the last 2 minutes, 4 by Johnson and 4 by Owens, after missing 6-of-15.
Owens finished with team-highs of 20 points and 7 rebounds.
“Reggie is as strong as a bull, and you’re not going to knock him off his spot,” said Leslie. “He is in a position right now where he is going to determine how good he is going to be. I’m going to get him the ball because that right there is Jerome Bettis with the ball in the fourth quarter.”
In 13 minutes of action in the second half, Owens registered 13 points, 6 rebounds and a steal.
“This isn’t much different than Tuesday night,” said Owens, who made 2 free throws with 0.9 second to give the Cougars a 75-73 victory at Fresno Pacific 4 nights ago. “I used my strength tonight to get position and was determined to score.”
Heenen led all players with 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting which included 5 3-point baskets. Known for his quick release, Heenen drained 4 straight 3-pointers in a 3-minute stretch that jettisoned the Lions to a double-digit lead in the first half. He paced Vanguard to a 41-32 halftime lead with 14 points.
Scott, an All-GSAC guard, finished with 12 points, 8 assists and 7 rebounds. However, he had 5 turnovers.
“We got Greg to turnover it over some,” said Leslie. “We kept a bigger defender on him and rotated 5 guys on him tonight. We had to take a platoon approach just to try to wear him a little bit.”
Sophomore Marshall Johnson aided the Cougar cause with 13 points. He scored the game’s opening basket to give the Cougars a 2-0 lead. It was a rare moment of advantage for Azusa Pacific. The Cougars held the lead for just 3 minutes and 2 seconds on the night, but it was enough time to come away with its third straight win of the season.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 11-6 overall, 4-3 in the GSAC. Vanguard falls to 4-9 overall, 3-4 in the GSAC.