SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Whether or not it deserved to win could be debated for years to come, but history will never change the fact that the NAIA’s No. 24-ranked Azusa Pacific fashioned one of the most improbable comebacks in program history, scoring 26 points in the final 7 minutes, to beat Westmont College, 78-75, in a near-packed Murchison Gym Tuesday evening.
The regular-season finale victory is monumental in that the Cougars secure sole possession of third place in the GSAC and a likely 15th consecutive NAIA Tournament bid. On the other hand, the gut-wrenching setback plummets Westmont into the fifth seed of the upcoming GSAC Postseason Tournament, which presents with it a steep uphill climb for an NAIA Tournament bid that at one point was just minutes away from being the Warriors to claim.
“They had us,” said Cougar coach Justin Leslie, “but they went into a prevent defense on offense and that allowed us some transition buckets and just enough of an opportunity to get us going.”
The Warriors entered the night tied with Azusa Pacific in the GSAC standings and seemed to be just moments away from drubbing the Cougars, assuming third place by itself, and staking their own rights to an NAIA Tournament at-large berth. Up 65-52 following a pair of Dan Rasp free throws, Westmont was in command, having led since the midway point of the first half. The Warriors had weathered every Cougar run to get back into the game, relying on Rasp and fellow big man Blake Bender to control play in the paint at both ends of the court.
“I called a timeout when they went up by 13 and told our guys that this was their season on the line,” said Leslie. “They knew what was at stake and they responded. This was our biggest win of the year. No question.”
As was the case in its overtime loss in Azusa last month, Westmont missed free throws at critical times and then began juggling the ball, committing 4 of its mere 12 turnovers in that fatal 7-minute stretch. The Cougars scored 9 points on those takeaways.
The Cougar comeback began with a Mike Caffese theft of Warrior guard Chris Jackson. Freshman James Staniland capitalized with a seemingly innocuous and certainly desperate 3-pointer from the left corner. Marshall Johnson followed with a silky trey of his own from the right wing, and the Cougars had renewed life, albeit not with much time remaining in the game.
“I know these guys have a lot of heart on this team,” said Caffese, “so I figured if we just kept our poise I knew we could pull it out. When James hit that 3-pointer it just had a snowball effect on everything.”
Westmont still led by a somewhat comfortable 7 at 73-66 following a Rasp jumper in the key with 2:55 remaining. Johnson, who moments before split the gut with an impressive drive to the basket, again drove the lane and was fouled by Blake. His 2 free throws spurred another 10-0 Cougar run, highlighted by yet another Caffese steal, this of time of Rasp, which he translated into a lead pass to Dominique Johnson who was fouled as he converted his breakaway lay-up to give Azusa Pacific a 75-73 lead with 59 seconds left, its first lead since holding a 16-15 advantage with 10 minutes to go in the first half. Johnson knocked down the free throw to push the Azusa Pacific lead to 3.
Still, Rasp answered with a difficult baseline jumper that found nothing but net to get the Warriors back to within a point with 40 seconds left. Westmont then triple-teamed Marshall Johnson in front of the Cougar bench, forcing him to lose the ball out of bounds and thus present the Warriors a chance to win the game on the final possession.
Out of a timeout, Westmont worked the clock down under 10 seconds and then attempted to go to Bender on the right block. However, Caffese deflected Jackson’s entry pass and then batted the ball along the baseline to a waiting Reggie Owens, who held the ball until he was fouled with 3 seconds. Owens converted both free throws, icing a game in the final seconds with free throws for the fourth time this season, to cap the Cougars’ game-ending 26-10 run.
“Jackson isn’t much of a shooter, so I knew he wasn’t looking to take the last shot,” said Caffese as he described his game clinching steal. “I knew Bender was posting up, and as I had been doing all night I was helping down and just read Jackson’s eyes. I was in the right place at the right time.”
Marshall Johnson finished with a team-high 19 points, 15 of which came in the second half and 9 in the final 6 minutes.
“Our intensity picked up late in the game,” said Marshall Johnson. “We knew what we were playing for, a chance to go to Kansas City (site of the NAIA Tournament). We weren’t going to the hoop with authority until late. I’m a slasher at heart, and I think I can do a pretty good job of finishing when I get up by the basket.”
Junior David Stafford dropped in a season-high 14 points on 5-for-6 shooting, which included 2 conversions from the 3-point line in his 23 minutes of play. His 12-foot jumper in the key, his last basket of the game, capped an 8-1 Cougar run that got Azusa Pacific to within 6 at 66-60 with just under 6 minutes to play.
“I wasn’t sure about our chances with 8 minutes to go,” said Stafford. “When it comes to getting an NAIA Tournament bid, you don’t want to leave anything to chance and that GSAC Tournament. We knew we needed this game, and we played our best defense of the year down the stretch.”
Dominique Johnson and Owens each posted 13 points of their own with Owens collecting a team-high 8 rebounds as well.
Caffese finished with 8 points and all 3 of his steals came in the final 7 minutes of play. His conventional 3-point play in which he blew by Jackson and was fouled, tied the game at 73-all with 1:23 left and capped the erasing of Westmont’s aforementioned 13-point lead in a span of less than 5 minutes.
Westmont nearly doubled Azusa Pacific’s attempts at the free throw line, but the Warriors missed 13-of-33 free throws. In fact, the Cougars were about to engage on a “hack-a-shaq” strategy, focusing on Warrior Evan Haines who was 1-for-6 at the line when instead Staniland and Marshall connected on their back-to-back bombs to put that idea to rest.
Rasp and Bender combined for 41 of the Westmont’s 75 points with Rasp tallying a game-high 21. Bender had a marvelous game with 20 points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
With the win, Azusa Pacific has now won 9 straight over Westmont and taken 15 of the past 16 meetings. The Cougars improve to 21-9 and finish GSAC play at 14-6 for the fourth straight season. Westmont, which entered the game as arguably one of the hottest teams in the nation having won 7 in a row and 8 of its past 9 games including wins over nationally-ranked Biola University and Fresno Pacific University, falls to 21-8 overall, 13-7 in the GSAC tied for fourth place
Both teams open the 17th Annual GSAC Postseason Tournament Thursday (March 4) with first round games at 7:30 p.m. The Cougars host The Master’s College, while Westmont visits Fresno Pacific.
The final NAIA Coaches’ Poll, from which the 14 or 15 at-large berths into the NAIA Tournament will be selected, will be released Tuesday (March 2) at 3 p.m. (PST).