LA MIRADA, Calif. -- Some say the game didn’t matter. Nothing was on the line. Anything of real value had already been claimed, and it was just a game between 2 teams playing out a string.
Really? Is that what this was?
Tell that to a fatigued Mike Caffese, because to him that was no string. It was a rope that 2 heavyweights were yanking on for 40 minutes.
Try to inform Marshall Johnson that this was just a meaningless, run-of-the-mill game, and he’ll flash you his bruised and battered thigh, the recipient of several opposing knee bashes.
No, this game meant a lot, if not everything. That’s why Johnson and his mates were doing flying chest bumps at midcourt when the final buzzer sounded; clinching Azusa Pacific’s 70-66 upset of No. 1-ranked Concordia University and awarding the Cougars their seventh GSAC Postseason Tournament championship in the past 10 years.
“I’m beat up right now,” said Caffese, Azusa Pacific’s junior point guard who in 30 minutes of high-energy play tonight registered 9 points, 4 rebounds 3 assists and 2 steals. “I had to work hard, but this is that game that you have to want it that much more. It’s Concordia. It’s the GSAC championship game.”
Granted not one of the past 10 GSAC Postseason Tournament championship games have meant much in terms of advancement, tournament berths or seeding. The 2 contenders in every GSAC Tournament title game since 2001 were already assured of a forthcoming NAIA Tournament berth before the opening tip-off. If ever there was an exhibition, the GSAC title game had certainly become one.
Still, this one mattered tonight. That’s why Azusa Pacific rallied from 8 down in the blink of an eye with a 10-0 flurry in the first half. It’s also why Concordia, which trailed by a whopping 16 points with just over 13 minutes to play, employed a relentless man defense that whittled the deficit down just 3 before time ran out on the Eagles.
There were hard fouls, late hits, stares, glares and yelling. Officials got earfuls. Fans got gestures from players, and vice-versa. There was the storming-of-the-court, followed by the obligatory handshakes that on one side were noticeably sullen and down-trodden.
Indeed, Concordia is likely to retain the NAIA tournament’s No. 1 seed, and Azusa Pacific will probably be a low-level seed when the 32-team field and first-round pairings for the upcoming NAIA National Championship Tournament are announced live on web-TV Wednesday (March 10) afternoon. So in a sense, the naysayers are right. Tonight’s game didn’t determine much. However, the emotion of tonight’s verdict can’t be denied.
“We’re fired up right now,” said Johnson who tallied team highs of 18 points and 6 rebounds. “We’re rolling. After everything we’ve been through with injuries and guys missing games. This is great!”
Azusa Pacific has won 7 straight and is a perfect 7-0 with its current starting line-up, which was supposed to be the starting line-up when the season opened back on Nov. 13. But a series of illnesses, injuries, and missteps prevented the line-up of Johnson, Caffese, Dominique Johnson, Caleb Burgess and Mason Maynard coming together until Feb. 9. And even then, Burgess missed 2 subsequent starts.
But the Cougars appear to have everything in order as they head to Kansas City, Mo., next week for their 15th consecutive NAIA Tournament appearance. They’re coming off victories over The Master’s, which had swept the Cougars during the regular season, No. 5 Biola, and now top-ranked Concordia, though tonight’s victory wasn’t assured until the final 10 seconds.
Azusa Pacific led 33-27 at halftime but had to parlay an unusual Concordia timeout into a momentum-swinging event. With Concordia in control and up 22-14, the Eagles snagged the ball off a Dominique Johnson turnover, but instead of pushing the ball up-court and try to keep their foot on the Cougars’ collective throat, the Eagles called a timeout. Out of it, Azusa Pacific turned the tables with a 10-0 run in a 2-minute span, capped by a Dominique Johnson trey from the right wing to give the Cougars a 24-22 lead.
“I screamed and yelled out at our guys in that timeout,” said Cougar Head Coach Justin Leslie. “There wasn’t an ounce of strategy communicated. It was just time to toughen up. Everything that we had talked about and worked on in practice was out the window up to that point. It was just time to man up and be ready to go out and play basketball.”
Dominique Johnson responded by scoring 7 of his 14 points on the night over the final 8 minutes of the first half to spur Azusa Pacific’s up-to-then lethargic offense. Meanwhile the Cougar defense “manned-up” and tightened the screws on Concordia. The Eagles were held to just 7 points for an 11-minute stretch across both halves, and when Caffese took an outlet pass the length of the court for an uncontested lay-up, Azusa Pacific had a surprising double-digit lead at 40-29 just 3 minutes into the second half.
A Burgess 3-pointer followed by a Dominique Johnson steal and lay-up pushed the Cougar advantage to a very comfortable 49-33 with just over 13 minutes remaining. Yet, with Concordia, nothing is ever comfortable.
“Coach has been preaching to us all year to just do the little things,” added Caffese, “and that’s what we were doing to get them down a little bit. They couldn’t get any groove, and we were feeling the flow.”
Another Ken Ammann timeout for Concordia gave the veteran coach the opportunity to duplicate a speech something similar to Leslie’s first-half “talk” with his team. Concordia responded with a knee-buckling defense that produced 6 Cougar turnovers in the next 7 minutes and allowed just 5 shots, 3 of which were missed. With new opportunities, Concordia rallied back to within 5 at 54-49 when GSAC Player of the Year Justin Johnson knocked down a jumper in the key with 6 minutes left.
A nifty baseline drive by Marshall Johnson followed by a Burgess trey from the top of the key put Azusa Pacific back up by 10 at 61-51 with 4 minutes left.
“Caleb’s 3 was huge for us,” said Leslie, “and in truth any baskets we got at that point were big.”
The Cougars still held a 10-point lead with 2 minutes to go, but aided by an assortment of 7 missed Cougar free throws down the stretch, Concordia could not go quietly. Cameron Glidden buried a corner trey and followed with a lay-up off 1 of the Cougars’ 21 turnovers to get the Eagles back to within 5. Another Justin Johnson bucket moved Concordia to within 3 at 67-64 with 17 seconds left. However, Azusa Pacific made 3 free throws in the closing seconds to ward off Concordia and secure victory, its second in 3 meetings with the Eagles this season.
“I kept reminding our guys that we’re in the lead, don’t panic,” said Leslie. “If you would have told us before the game that we’d be up 5 with 5 minutes left or up 5 with a minute-and-a-half left, we’d take that. We weren’t in a bad spot, but we used up nearly all of our 16-point lead.”
Justin Johnson led all players with a game-high 21 points. Brandon Hucks was the only other Eagle in double figures, coming off the bench to drop in 11 points.
Burgess finished with 10 points, while Reggie Owens added 6 points and a team-high 6 rebounds.
With the victory Azusa Pacific improves to 24-9 while Concordia falls to 30-3. Two of the Eagles’ 3 losses this season have come to Azusa Pacific and neither game was played in Azusa.
“It feels real good to beat the No. 1 team in the nation,” said Leslie. “That’s the caliber of team we’re going to face when we get back to the national tournament. I’m very proud of the accomplishment, but I think each and every one of these young men want something bigger. We have to keep our focus and look to improve even at this late stage of the season.”
The NAIA national office will announce the 32-team national championship tournament field Wednesday during its selection show that will be broadcast live over the Internet on College Fanz Sports Network beginning at 2 p.m. (PST).