KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The ghosts of the past spoke, those who had gone ahead and walked before in this place, in the caverns of Kansas City’s famed Municipal Auditorium.
Voices from Tulsa were heard as well by ones they had never met, and yet were just like them. Identical in form, fashion and accomplishment.
They were Cougars. The ones of 1998, 1999, and of 2002. They had been here before at the NAIA Fab Four. They were from the 2005 team as well, the squad that won a quarterfinal game in 3 overtimes and eventually became the first Azusa Pacific team ever to play for a national championship. Yet all of them had their journey stopped short of the final destination.
On this chilly spring afternoon in Kansas City where piles of snow still lined streets, Azusa Pacific head coach Justin Leslie called upon his teammates from 1998 and 1999 and the players he coached as an assistant in 2002 and 2005 to speak to this year’s Cougars through texts, emails and voicemails. He called upon them to help push a tired and depleted team one more step toward that elusive goal – a national championship.
So several hours before the Cougars took the court in Municipal for tonight’s semifinal with Southern Poly State University (Ga.), Leslie gathered his team in a hotel and distributed 2 pages of selected messages from the more than 150 communications he had received in the previous 36 hours from Cougar alumni with stories of past NAIA Tournaments and with words of encouragement. Their point got across.
In an impressive performance of heady basketball, Azusa Pacific discarded tournament Cinderella Southern Poly State, 80-68, in the semifinals of the NAIA Men’s Basketball Division I Championship Tournament Monday evening in Municipal Auditorium. The victory puts the Cougars back into the NAIA championship game for only the second time in the program’s 45-year history, joining the 2005 team that finished as the national runner-up.
The Cougars (28-9) will play the tournament’s No. 3 seed Oklahoma Baptist University (32-3) in the national championship game Tuesday (March 23) at 7 p.m. (CDT) in Municipal Auditorium. The Bison beat Robert Morris University (Ill.), 81-79, in overtime, in tonight’s other semifinal.
The championship game will be televised live on CBS College Sports Network beginning at 7 p.m. (CDT).
Azusa Pacific got its spot in the title game by closing tonight’s contest with a 14-2 run over the final 3 minutes of play. Southern Poly rallied from 14 down in the second half to tie the game at 66-all, capping a 5-minute, 22-8 blitz in which the Hornets replicated a similar formula they employed to upset No. 1-ranked Mountain State University (W. Va.) on Friday and then to beat John Brown University (Ark.) in Saturday’s quarterfinals.
“I told our team during a time-out, ‘great, they’ve got us right where they want us, up 14,’” said Leslie with a smile during the postgame press conference. “I think the difference was that the shots that they made to battle back in those games didn’t fall tonight. They were the shots we wanted them to take, but this time they were longer, contested shots, very low percentage shots.”
Hornet guards Xavier Dawson and Jas Rogers came in averaging 45 points combined in NAIA Tournament action, and tonight they registered a fine 38 together, including a game-high 24 for Dawson. However, they needed 34 shots to get those 38 points.
For the fourth consecutive game a different Cougar led the team from the gate. Junior Caleb Burgess, the Cougars’ top 3-point shooter who had yet to drain a trey in the tournament, knocked down a couple bombs in the first half and then 2 more in the second half on his way to a team-high 18 points. He made his first shot of the night, a 3-pointer, to put the Cougars up 3-2 a minute into play. Spurred by Burgess’s new-found touch, Marshall Johnson and Ashton Roberts followed with back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Cougars a 13-7 lead.
When the Hornets answered with another one of their runs to take a brief lead, All-American Dominique Johnson became the fourth different Cougar to strike from beyond the arc, giving Azusa Pacific a lead it would retain the rest of the first half.
Though Azusa Pacific didn’t shoot well (just 37-percent) in the half, the Cougars continually attacked the basket, picking up a bonus 7 points at the free throw line, and then SPSU off the glass, leading to 34-31 halftime advantage.
The 2 teams traded baskets the first 7 minutes of the second half, but with the Cougars keeping Southern Poly at bay and still holding to a 3-point lead, they found renewed success in the paint, first with center Reggie Owens and then with their guards slashing to the basket.
A 13-2 run capped by Burgess’ fourth trey of the night pushed Azusa Pacific’s lead to 58-44 with 8:41 left in the game.
“I drove to a 24-Hour Fitness Center Saturday night after our game just get some extra shooting,” said Burgess. “My shot just wasn’t cutting it lately, and I knew we needed more offensive production.
But the Cougars knew what was looming around the corner, and in that timeout Leslie warned them, “Here it comes!”
Dawson scored the next 7 points in 70 seconds, and only a nifty Marshall Johnson baseline drive in traffic could slow the oncoming Hornet onslaught.
A gassed Dawson took a seat on the bench, so Rogers followed with his 3-pointer to get the Hornets to within 4 at 62-58 with 5 minutes left. After a short respite, Dawson returned and promptly converted a 3-point play to knot the game at 66-all.
This comeback, however, didn’t have the same feel as Saturday’s when Lee University cut Azusa Pacific’s commanding 24-point cushion to just 3 in the final minute of play. This time the Cougars carried a sense of poise, purpose and control.
And they had Dominique Johnson.
“They started hitting shots, and I told Dominique it was time for him to step up,” said Leslie. “I told him to be the best player on the floor. And he was. When we needed something, Dominique was the one who delivered.”
Johnson, who had just gone coast-to-coast for an impressive slam dunk, followed Dawson’s 3-point play with pull-up jumper at the left elbow to give Azusa Pacific the lead for good at 68-66.
David Stafford, starting at the point in place of the injured Mike Caffese, knocked down his only 3-pointer from the right wing for a crucial trey similar in significance to the one he nailed in Thursday’s first-round win over the University of the Cumberlands (Ky.). Stafford’s bucket this time put the Cougars up 73-68 with 1:45 to play as the Cougars scored the game’s final 10 points.
“I was glad that Dominique kicked that ball out to me,” said Stafford. “I see myself more as a defensive player this year, but I’ve been a shooter all my life and I still feel like I can knock down big shots at the end of games. When it left my hand it felt great. I knew it was going in.”
“Staff does things right and he prepares himself for those moments,” said Leslie. “He has not been consistent in his shooting this year, but he has worked himself to where he now understands the timing and when we need big shots.”
Owens finished with 16 points and picked up his first double-double since Jan. 26 and his sixth on the season.
“I’ve been feeling pretty good in this tournament,” said Owens, “and I liked tonight’s match-up. They weren’t a big team, and I thought I could dominate.”
Dominique Johnson added 14 points to go along with 5 rebounds, while Marshal Johnson (no relation) chipped in with 9 points and 6 rebounds.
Roberts, who didn’t get off the bench in the first 2 NAIA Tournament games, performed well in Caffese’s absence, finishing with 7 points in 18 minutes of time.
Azusa Pacific, which has made more free throws in this tournament (78) than its opponent has attempted (73), again took advantage of the charity stripe, going 22-for-30 at the line while SPUS was just 9-for-11.
“We threw the ball to Reggie early and often to get them in as much foul trouble as we could and it took about 12 minutes,” said Leslie. “In the second half I kept yelling ‘there he is, get it to him.’”
Southern Poly State, which was making its first NAIA Fab Four appearance, has its season come to an end at 29-6.
Now it’s on to the championship game with little time to rest or prepare. Those who have gone before understand the rigors of this tournament that is appropriately billed the most difficult tournament to win. They pushed the Cougars today, and they’ll have to again Tuesday against a significantly big Oklahoma Baptist team.
“I got kind of emotional reading all those emails and texts from the former players,” said Burgess. “I feel like those guys deserve this opportunity to play for a national championship more than I do. We’re playing for the school and for the alums. This is huge.”
“I gave our guys those messages because Azusa Pacific basketball is a special fraternity, and those past players are living here right now through us,” said Leslie. “I already have 20 text messages from former players and the game is hardly over. At this point of the tournament every player on every team still here is physically tired. I was looking for a mental edge to help our players keep pushing through the fatigue. They’re not just playing for themselves but everyone who went before them, who suffered painful losses here but from which we all learned. This is a culmination of our many trips to the NAIAs.”