AZUSA, Calif. – Again it was a nail-biter. Again it was decided by a play here or there. Again it went into overtime, actually 2 this time. And in the middle of it all was a boy playing at a level that belied his tender age of 17.
Freshman Christian Katuala snagged a critical offensive rebound of a missed free throw, muscled up for a go-ahead lay-up, and then took a game-winning charge with 36 seconds left to help the NAIA’s No. 17-ranked Azusa Pacific secure an 85-81 double-overtime victory over Golden State Athletic Conference rival California Baptist University before a Friday-night crowd of 1,870, the largest to see a game in the Felix Event Center this season.
Katuala’s 3 key plays in the second overtime were all part of career night in which the French native who was born Oct. 2, 1992, tallied 14 points and 5 rebounds in 23 minutes of play off the bench. He made 6-of-7 shots, all in the paint, and continually out-hustled and out-muscled all others to off-set his undersized 6-foot-4 frame.
“I have a big heart,” said Katuala, who had never played basketball until his freshman year at Etiwanda High School. “Whenever I step on the court I tell myself that I have to play hard on every play. I try to out-smart people around the basket just to get my shots off.”
Katuala’s big plays along with double-digit scoring efforts from 5 other Cougars allowed Azusa Pacific to once again escape with a victory in what has become the most hotly contested, if not the most-intriguing rivalry in the GSAC. For the eighth straight meeting, the Cal Baptist-Azusa Pacific game came down to the final seconds and was decided either by a single basket or in overtime. Fortunately for Azusa Pacific, 6 of those decisions have gone the Cougars’ way, leaving CBU coach Tim Collins and the rest of the Lancer faithful to mutter to themselves as they walk off the court.
“I can’t explain why the Azusa Pacific-Cal Baptist game has become so fierce and tight,” said Azusa Pacific Coach Justin Leslie. “I know each night we get everyone’s best shot in this conference, and Tim does a great job preparing his team to play us.”
Originally it appeared Azusa Pacific would get a routine, regulation-timed victory over Cal Baptist. The Cougars, who led throughout the entire second half, were up by 9, 61-52, with less than 5 minutes left in regulation. However, a series of Cougar missed lay-ups and free throws, combined with some clutch buckets and free throws by the Lancers, allowed Cal Baptist to rally and force overtime after Davey Hopkins buried 2 free throws with 4 seconds left to tie the game at 64-64.
In the first extra frame, the Cougars led by 3 points on a couple of occasions, the last coming on a pair of Dominique Johnson free throws with 15 seconds left to put the Cougars up 76-73. Lancer Robert Rose, however, drained a contested 3-pointer from the left wing with 1.2 second on the clock to send the game into a second overtime at 76-all.
In the additional overtime, Katuala out-wrestled a Lancer for a missed Cougar free throw and then backed into the key, spinning for a go-ahead lay-up. Hopkins followed with a long trey to put CBU back on top at 81-79. After a David Stafford lay-up knotted the game again at 81 with 2 minutes remaining, the Cougars took the lead for good when Johnson rebounded a Hopkins’ missed 3-pointer and then nailed 2 free throws with 76 seconds left.
On the Lancers’ ensuring possession, Hopkins tried to drive baseline for a game-tying lay-up but was cut off by Katuala, who took a charge to give Azusa Pacific the ball with a 2-point lead and 36 seconds left on clock.
“That was my biggest play of the night,” said Katuala, who received a few flying chest-bumps following the charge.
“No play tonight that I’m more proud of than that charge that Christian took,” said Leslie. “He is a very good teammate. He is willing to do the dirty work that no one else wants to do. When you’re picking teams, he’s that guy you want on your team.”
Out of a time out, Caleb Burgess was fouled and made 2 free throws with 9 seconds left for the final margin of victory, the tenth in the past 11 meetings with Cal Baptist that was less than 5 points (the other was a 7-point decision that went into overtime).
“I’m worn out,” said Leslie following the Cougars’ first multi-overtime game since their visit to Concordia University in 2007 (CUI won 111-105). “Cal Baptist played very well. They made 2 very difficult shots in regulation, got a great put-back, and then Rose hits a huge 3 to send it into another overtime.”
The game, which was tied 11 times, featured 17 lead changes. Cal Baptist never lead by more than 2 on any occasion throughout the night.
Sophomore Marshall Johnson led all Cougars with 17 points, including 6 in the first overtime. Burgess added 15, including 13 in the first half when he knocked down 6-of-8 shots to pace Azusa Pacific to a 36-34 halftime lead. Dominique Johnson added 15 points as well, and had a chance to end the game in the first OT when went to the line to shoot 3 free throws with the Cougars up by 1, 74-73, with 18 seconds left. However, he missed the first free throw before making the next 2, allowing Rose the opportunity for his game-tying trey.
“This was the biggest game of the year,” said Leslie, “and I’ll tell you that again Tuesday night at Biola. We just have to find a way to win, because we’re trying to get to the NAIA Tournament. The guys did not get rattled tonight. They’re maturing and finding a way to win.”
Cal Baptist was led by Larry Dew’s game-high 18 points. Hopkins finished with 17 points, 15 of which came after halftime.
With the win Azusa Pacific improves to 16-7 overall, 9-4 in the GSAC. California Baptist falls to 14-9 overall, 7-6 in the GSAC.
Azusa Pacific, which has won 8 of its past 9 games, heads to La Mirada Tuesday (Feb. 9) for a 7:30 p.m. game with the NAIA’s No. 3-ranked and GSAC frontrunner Biola University, which hosts Vanguard University Saturday night. The Cougars can use the extra day of rest in preparation for Biola after another game in a long line of thrilling and nerve-wracking contests with Cal Baptist.