LA MIRADA, Calif. -- History was conflicted tonight, torn between itself and confused on what it should do. Does it follow its recent past, or should it pursue its own longstanding tradition?
The real battle tonight may not have been between rivals Azusa Pacific and Biola, but rather the one history was staging all by itself in a corner of Chase Gymnasium.
That fight in itself may have been worth the price of admission.
In the end, history sided with tradition, and thus the NAIA’s No. 15-ranked Azusa Pacific rallied from double-digit deficits to upset No. 5 Biola, 76-75 in overtime, in a semifinal of the 17th Annual Golden State Athletic Conference Tournament.
The victory, Azusa Pacific’s first in 3 tries vs. Biola this season, propels the Cougars back into the conference tournament championship game for the ninth time in the past 10 years where they will meet the NAIA’s top-ranked Concordia University, Tuesday (March 9) at 7:30 p.m. back in Chase Gym on Biola’s campus.
In 2002 and again last year Azusa Pacific endured rare regular-season sweeps at the hands of a conference foe. Eight years ago it was Westmont and Biola that took both regular-season meetings from the Cougars, and last year it was Concordia and Fresno Pacific. Yet both years when it came to the postseason, specifically the GSAC Tournament, Azusa Pacific avenged all losses, first drubbing Westmont and Biola to win the 2002 GSAC Tourney and then last year beating up on Fresno Pacific and Concordia to come back and take the tourney title.
So here comes this season and the only 2 teams to sweep the Cougars – The Master’s and Biola. As history would dictate, this year’s GSAC Tournament opened with Azusa Pacific getting another shot at The Master’s. The Cougars didn’t miss it either, hammering the Mustangs by 24 points after suffering a pair of 3-point verdicts earlier this year.
History indeed appeared to be repeating itself. But could it really pull it off again, this time against Biola, which ironically the Cougars got as a reward for beating The Master’s? The one difference between the past and the presence is that in 2002 and 2009, the Cougars played on their home court when it avenged its losses in GSAC Tourney play. Not so this time. In fact, in a twist of irony, Azusa Pacific had to go Biola’s home gym.
Early on it appeared history would side with recent events and not tradition. As they had done in the 2 previous regular-season meetings, the Eagles pounced on Azusa Pacific, rolling out to a double-digit lead in the first 10 minutes of play. Biola employed its vaunted 2-3 zone defense that had so frustrated Azusa Pacific back in January and February when Eagles skated out to 20- and sometimes 30-point leads over the Cougars. When All-GSAC center Rocky Hampton tipped in a miss to put the Eagles up 26-14 with 6 minutes left in the first half, it appeared this game was going to be just like the other 2 – a runaway.
A bashful set of Cougars refused to attack Biola’s zone defense, instead settling for long 3-point shots, and the result was predictable because it had happened in the other 2 games. Azusa Pacific missed a whopping 12-of-14 shots from the arc in the first 14 minutes of the game.
However, an odd thing happened on the way to halftime. Azusa Pacific had a momentary sense of a long-distance touch and made 3 straight bombs as part of an 11-0 run in which All-American Dominique Johnson scored 8 consecutive points, his last 2 coming on a fast-break layup that cut the Eagle cushion to just 1 at 26-25 with 2 minutes left in the half.
That’s when history began to struggle with itself. Was Azusa Pacific supposed to come back and avenge yet another season sweep, or was Biola supposed to roll over the Cougars like it had done before? A slim Biola lead was not in the equation.
Five unanswered Hampton points gave Biola a 31-25 lead at halftime, and order (or was it history) was restored when Biola went on a 12-4 run early in the second half to get the lead back out to double-digits at 45-34 just 5 minutes into the half.
An emboldened set of Cougars, however, began to attack Biola’s zone, first with guard Marshall Johnson receiving entry passes at the high post where he could find a slashing Caleb Burgess or Reggie Owens, or then take the ball himself to the hoop. Not that that the always worked because the 6-foot-9 Hampton was still under the basket to either block or alter shots, but the Cougars found enough success to ease the pressure of their long-distance shooting and thus were able to chip away at the Eagle lead.
“We made a point of getting the ball to the high post tonight and we got good things out of it,” said Cougar Head Coach Justin Leslie. “Not having the high-low tandem in the past really hurt us, but we got good shots off those high post looks. That was the biggest difference between tonight and the previous games.”
A Dominique Johnson drive resulted in a Biola foul and 2 free throws that got Azusa Pacific back to within 2 at 47-45 with just under 9 minutes left, and the game, like never before this season, was on. The Cougars then produced their first lead of the night when Dominique knocked down a short jumper to put the Cougars up 50-49 to cap a 16-4 run.
“Coach always tells us that the game is about runs, and we were just waiting for ours to come,” said Johnson. “We just had more heart in this game than we did in the past 2. Everybody fought and stayed together. We kept our focus because a conference tournament championship and seeding for the NAIA Tourney were on the line.”
In a manner reminiscent of their rivalry games in the past, the 2 teams then traded leads for the next 6 minutes. When Dominique Johnson’s fourth and final 3-pointer of the night rattled around and fell through the net, it appeared longstanding history was on the Cougars’ side again with Azusa Pacific up 65-62, less than 30 seconds away from yet avenging another sweep.
Biola’s All-GSAC guard Danny Campbell, who had torched the Cougars for a career-high 32 points on this same court just 4 weeks ago, was an obvious go-to choice for an overtime-forcing trey. So when Campbell got the ball on the left wing, Azusa Pacific’s Mike Caffese made sure Campbell wouldn’t get a shot off, instead fouling him as he went up for a 3-pointer with 21 seconds left.
“I was just trying to strip him of the ball because I did earlier in the game,” said Caffese who put together a solid all-around game with 6 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists and 5 steals. “Campbell usually puts that ball right in front of me. I didn’t want him to get the shot off, and I had seen Marshall slip, so I was trying to prevent anything I could but obviously I got too much of him.”
Sandwiched around an Azusa Pacific timeout, Campbell made all 3 free throws, and when Azusa Pacific couldn’t get a shot off before the buzzer, the Eagles and the Cougars found themselves tied at 65-all headed to overtime.
In the extra frame, Azusa Pacific never trailed. Caleb Burgess knocked down a pair of free throws to give Azusa Pacific an early 2-point lead, and he later followed with a lay-up that put the Cougars up 73-70 with 1:26 left in OT.
Biola answered with a Nate Rakestraw lay-up to pull back to within one. Marshall Johnson then went for the dagger with a 3-pointer from the left corner, but it rattled the rim and bounced out, and Biola had the ball, down by a point with 30 seconds to go.
Early in overtime, the Eagles had lost 4-year point guard Marlon King to fouls, and his absence became glaringly obvious at the most critical juncture. With Caffese hounding him on the right side, Eagle back-up Clay Martin dribbled the ball off his foot and out the baseline to give Azusa Pacific the ball with 17 seconds remaining.
“I was just trying to pressure Martin,” said Caffese. “He is an experienced player in the GSAC, and coach told me not to reach or gamble. So I figured if I stayed solid he’ll make a mistake and give the ball to us.”
Dominique Johnson made 2 free throws to put the Cougars back up by 3 at 75-72, and when Campbell was whistled for traveling under some Cougar pressure defense with 10 seconds left, Azusa Pacific had completed the revenge in a most unlikely manner.
Dominique Johnson finished with a team-high 23 points, 15 of which came after halftime. Marshall Johnson added 11, all after halftime. In his first-ever game against Biola, Cougar center Reggie Owens, who missed the 2 regular-season meetings, tallied 15 points on 5-for-7 shooting, to go along with 4 rebounds and 2 steals.
“Having Reggie tonight was huge for us,” said Leslie. “Reggie gave us 15 points. Those are 15 we sure could have used the first 2 times we played Biola.”
Again Hampton was a monster against Azusa Pacific, finishing with 26 points on 11-for-17 shooting to go along with 10 rebounds to lead Biola. Campbell chipped in with 19 points.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 23-9. Biola will take a 27-5 record into the NAIA Tournament when it opens March 17 in Kansas City, Mo.
“Obviously I’m pleased,” said Leslie. “We just beat a top ten team on their home floor. They’re good, but at the same time if we have any aspirations beyond this, we still have a lot to learn.”
By virtue of tonight’s victory and an upcoming meeting with GSAC regular-season champion Concordia, Azusa Pacific clinches the GSAC’s second automatic bid into the NAIA Tournament. Seeding and first-round pairings will be announced from the NAIA national office Wednesday (March 10) evening.
Before then, however, Concordia and Azusa Pacific will meet in the GSAC Tournament title game. The 2 teams split their regular-season series with the Eagles prevailing 86-68 in Azusa, before the Cougars came back to down Concordia, 80-67, in Irvine last month. It was Concordia’s last setback before going on its current 11-game winning streak.
Every year since 2001, either Azusa Pacific or Concordia have advanced to the GSAC Tournament championship game, and for the fifth time in that 10-year span to 2 teams will be meeting in the championship game. They have split 4 previous title contests with the Cougars taking the most recent title-game contest, 80-72, in 2007.
Tickets for the championship game are for sale on-line at the Biola athletics website.