KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Christian Katuala may be an undersized, inexperienced, freshman center, but tonight he is a giant to his teammates.
Katuala, a 17-year old French native, came off the bench to score a career-high 15 points and lead the NAIA’s No. 15-ranked Azusa Pacific to a 65-51 upset of No. 4 Westminster College in the second round of the NAIA Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament Friday afternoon in Municipal Auditorium.
Playing for the injured Mason Maynard, who went down with a foot injury midway through the first half, Katuala capitalized on his opportunity by converting 4-of-7 shots and knocking down all 7 free throw attempts, scoring more points against Westminster than he had tallied in his 8 previous games combined.
“I’m glad coach gave me a chance to prove myself and help the team win,” said Katuala, who has been playing basketball for less than 5 years. “Watching Westminster play yesterday and seeing how they defend, I knew I could be very effective if I was really aggressive.”
It was an aggressive and fearless Katuala who capped Azusa Pacific’s trek on the comeback trail after the Cougars had fallen by 9 down midway through the first half. His lay-up in which he muscled through 3 Griffin defenders put the finishing touch on an 11-0 Cougar run that gave Azusa Pacific a 24-22 lead with 3 minutes left in the first half.
“I know most of the opponents do underestimate me,” said the barely 6-foot-4 Katuala. “I love it because I get to prove them wrong.”
Katuala’s first-half spark kick-started a sluggish Cougar offense that eventually found a groove against a smart and effective Griffin defense. Once Azusa Pacific got even with Westminster, the 2 teams settled into a toe-to-toe slugfest in which the 2 teams exchanged leads 5 times and knotted the score 8 other times in a span of 15 minutes of play.
Azusa Pacific led 31-30 at halftime following Dominique Johnson’s third and final 3-pointer of the game with 39 seconds left in the half.
A Ben Walker free throw followed by his lay-up gave the Griffins a 3-point cushion at 39-36 just 6 minutes into the second half. Moments later guard Michael Stockton, son of former NBA great John Stockton, hit a pull-up jumper in the key to keep Westminster up by 3 at 43-40 with 12:02 left in the game. Little did anyone know at the time that it was would be the Griffins’ last field goal for the next 9 minutes, though in hindsight Cougar coach Justin Leslie wasn’t surprised.
“This tournament is a battle of attrition, and if you’re not fresh, you’re in trouble,” said Leslie. “I have to thank Evangel for yesterday. Westminster had a tough game against Evangel, and they only play 7 guys. They had to go to their eighth guy today.
“Westminster’s plays worked in the second half. They got their guys uncontested looks, but their shots hit the front of the rim. They had nothing left in their legs.”
It was another Kataula lay-up through defenders that got the Cougars going on second half surge, igniting a 20-3 run over a 7-minute stretch that gave Azusa Pacific an insurmountable 60-46 lead following a Johnson lay-up with 4 minutes left in the game.
Sophomore guard Marshall Johnson, the Cougars’ second-leading scorer who has struggled thus far in the tournament, made his first 3-pointer at the NAIAs to move the Cougars out to 51-44 advantage, and Katuala followed with a conventional 3-point play to push the margin to 58-45.
“Christian was ready to step up and play today,” said Leslie. “He is a tough guy. His intensity and physical toughness worked well against Westminster. He scored 15 points, and that’s against probably the best defense he had faced all season.”
Westminster, which entered the day with a 14-game winning streak, missed 10 of its final 11 shots. Griffin Blair Prowse, who came in averaging 15 points a game, was 0-for-6 for the floor and produced just 3 points against a stingy Cougar defense. A Walker reverse lay-up with 3 minutes left to play was the Griffins’ only field goal in the final 12 minutes. Weston Anderson led Westminster with 13 points. The Griffins’ season comes to an end at 27-6.
Azusa Pacific converted 21-of-24 free throw attempts, including 11-of-13 in the second half. In addition, the Cougars committed just 1 turnover in the second half.
Dominique Johnson finished with a game-high 17 points, while Marshall Johnson had 11. Yesterday’s first-round hereo Reggie Owens chipped in with 10 points and a team-high 6 rebounds.
Owners of a season-best 9-game winning streak, Azusa Pacific moves into the quarterfinals of the NAIA Tournament for the fifth time in the past 6 years. The Cougars, who improve to 26-9 on the season, meet Lee University (28-7) of Cleveland, Tenn., at 3 p.m. (CDT) Saturday (March 20) in of 1 of 4 quarterfinal games to be played.