KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Junior center Reggie Owens came off the bench to score a career-high 28 points, including the game-winner with 1.3 seconds left, to lift Azusa Pacific University to a 72-68 victory over the University of the Cumberlands (Ky.) in the opening round of the 73rd Annual NAIA Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament Thursday afternoon in Municipal Auditorium.
Owens was unstoppable throughout his 24 minutes of play, making 12-of-15 shots and none was bigger than the last one, a lay-up that came off a sideline inbounds lob pass from guard Mike Caffese in front of the Cougar bench with the score tied 68-all.
“Mike’s pass was so good I wanted to dunk it,” said Owens, “but with less than 4 seconds to go I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. I just wanted to make sure we got the basket. It was the biggest basket of my career.”
Owens’ heroics pushes Azusa Pacific’s winning streak to a season-high 8 straight and puts the Cougars in the second round of the NAIA Tournament where they’ll will meet No. 4-seed Westminster College (Utah) Friday (March 19) at 2:15 p.m. (CDT).
Cumberlands, which at one point trailed by 13 in the first half, rallied behind the play of All-Mid-South Conference guard Chad Byron, whose jumper with 42 second left tied the game at 68-68. On the ensuing possession, as Azusa Pacific ran the game clock to under 10 seconds, guard Marshall Johnson attempted a running jumper in the lane that bounced off the side off the rim as he fell to the ground. Cumberlands’ Bernard Cherry secured the missed shot with 5 seconds left and tried to outlet the ball to Byron, who instead was tripping over backwards on a sprawled Johnson as Cherry released the ball. The pass never found its intended target as the ball bounced away untouched in front of the Cougar bench, giving Azusa Pacific another game-winning opportunity with 3.9 seconds left on the clock.
They didn’t miss this time.
Out of a Cougar timeout, Owens set up at the elbow opposite the Cougar bench, accepted a back screen from Dominique Johnson and cut to the basket where Caffese had perfectly tossed his inbounds pass.
“I keep telling the guys that this is the time of the year where you have draw upon things that you use throughout the course of the entire season,” said Leslie. “We drew up that play late in the first half of a game in November, and we hadn’t run it since.”
Yet as Owens reminded him, “it worked one other time this season, and it worked today.”
Owens, who has led Azusa Pacific to a 22-4 record in games he has played this season (he missed 8 games, 5 of which the Cougars lost), was single-handedly leading Azusa Pacific to victory as the game unfolded. He scored 16 of the Cougars’ 33 first-half points, propelling Azusa Pacific to a 9-point halftime cushion.
With Cumberlands center Brandon Russ on the bench with 2 early fouls, Owens chewed apart an undersized Patriot defense, scoring 8 straight points in one stretch to put Azusa Pacific up 26-13 with just under 4 minutes left in the first half.
“I knew Cumberlands could guard us on the perimeter, and they face-guarded all of our shooters,” said Leslie. “They wouldn’t even let them touch the ball, so as a result, Reggie had room to work. They adjusted in the second half, and he wasn’t nearly as effective, but they gave us Reggie in the first half.”
With Owens’ opportunities limited in the second half, Cumberlands methodically whittled away the Cougar advantage, eventually taking its first lead since the opening bucket on Nathaniel Mitchell’s lay-up that put the Patriots up 56-55 with 7 minutes to play.
Cougar guard David Stafford answered with his only basket of the game and the Cougars’ only trey of the second half, a bomb from the left wing.
“That has been theme of this team all season,” said Leslie, whose Cougars improve to 10-3 this season in games decided by 5 points or less. “Different players have consistently made a calming play, and today it was Staff. He was playing more for defensive reasons. I wasn’t expecting him to hit that shot.”
The 2 teams traded leads 5 times over the final 7 minutes, but Cumberlands was hamstrung in its attack when Russ finally fouled out with 2:39 left in the game.
With the Patriots clinging to a 65-64 lead, Caffese intercepted a pass and subsequently buried a fade-away in the key as the shot clock expired to put Azusa Pacific up 66-65 with 1:35 left in the game. The Cougars never trailed again.
“Winning the first game in Kansas City is huge,” said Leslie. “You have a week to prepare for this game. You scout the opponent, break down film and set up practices for this game. If you win it, your work pays off, and from here on out its just pure basketball. You don’t have much time to prepare for your next opponent. You just have to execute what you do best.”
Russ led a balanced Cumberlands attack with 14 points and 9 rebounds. Travis Harvey and Dustin Fothergill each added 13 while Byron finished with 12.
Dominique Johnson finished with 11 points for Azusa Pacific while Marshall Johnson had 10. Caffese added 10 points and a season-high 10 assists to go along with 3 steals.
Azusa Pacific moves on to the second round of the NAIA Tournament for the 12th time in the program’s 18 tournament appearances. In addition, the Cougars victory completes a first-round sweep out of the NAIA Tournament of the highly-regarded Mid-South Conference. Conference champ Campbellsville University (Ky.) was upset yesterday by Azusa Pacific’s GSAC-mate Fresno Pacific University, and perennial power Georgetown College (Ky.) was bounced as well by local favorite Park University (Mo.). It marks the first time since the conference’s inception in 1995 that the Mid-South has gone winless at the NAIA Tournament.
With the victory Azusa Pacific improves to 25-9. Cumberlands’ season comes to an end at 21-11.