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A Title Too Late

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Published
March 23, 2010
By
Gary Pine
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Marshall Johnson’s fade away put-back found nothing but net, yet in the end its net result was but nothing.

Instead A.J. Hawkins’ only 3-pointer of the night just 40 seconds earlier counted for everything, including a national title, as No. 3-ranked Oklahoma Baptist University rallied in the final 2 minutes to beat Azusa Pacific, 84-83, and capture the 2010 NAIA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament before a crowd of 5,353 in Municipal Auditorium Tuesday evening.

Hawkins’ bomb from the top of the key in the final minute of play capped a 4-point possession in which he made the first of 2 free throws and then buried the eventual game-winner off a kick-out from NAIA Player of the Year Nate Brumfield who had snagged the rebound off the missed free throw.

“A rebound of a missed free throw is all the difference between a national champion and a runner-up,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie. “It was a great basketball game. We gave it all we had, and one play down the stretch was the difference.”

Azusa Pacific appeared to have perhaps made the game even more dramatic when Johnson snatched a loose ball of a missed shot and whirled 180-degrees, releasing a high-arching shot that fell through the hoop as the final horn was sounding, potentially giving the Cougars a dramatic victory. However, officials reviewed television replays of the shot and confirmed what nearly everyone in the arena had already concluded, Johnson’s shot didn’t count, sending the Bison faithful into a second frenzied celebration of its first national championship in 44 years.

“With everyone screaming Marshall’s shot was too close to call,” said Leslie, “but I saw the replay as clear as everyone else did, the ball was in Marshall’s hands. I’m glad the officials took their time and gave it an honest look, but it wasn’t a good basket.”

It was a knee to the stomach for Azusa Pacific, which had controlled play the entire first half, took the Bison’s best shot to start the second half, and then went toe-to-toe with the Bison for the final 15 minutes of the game, eventually assuming a 5-point lead at 83-78 on Mike Danielian’s 2 free throws with 1:50 left in the game.

“I told anyone who would listen to me on the first day of the season that OBU was the best team in the nation,” said Leslie. “I knew there was going to be a run. We’ve seen that consistently throughout the tournament that when they’ve been down they battle back.”

Yet so too did Azusa Pacific, which furiously defended Brumfield and his frontline mate Kevin Swinton, using double and sometimes triple teams to limit their touches and movement around the basket. The Cougars pushed tempo and knocked down perimeter shots, including 5 three-pointers in the first half to take a somewhat surprising 47-40 lead at halftime.

Bison forward Garrett Steinmetz opened the second half with a trey from the left wing to spark a 9-0 OBU run, giving the Bison, at 49-47, their first lead of the game.

Caleb Burgess, though, answered for Azusa Pacific with his only 3-pointer of the night, a jumper from the top of the key that put Azusa Pacific back on top. From there, the battle was on.

Two of the NAIA’s winningest programs over the past 15 years, neither Azusa Pacific nor Oklahoma Baptist had anything to show for their national reputations other than a combined trio of NAIA title game appearances since 1995. The teams were fighting for an elusive crown, and every play seemingly mattered more than the one before. There were 6 more lead changes and the score was tied 8 other times after Burgess’ 3.

When OBU took its biggest lead of the game at 65-61 on a Hawkins’ jumper midway through the second half, Azusa Pacific countered with a Christian Katuala put-back and a pair of Dominique Johnson free throws to tie the game again.

If the Bison felt some comfort with a couple of defensive stops that produced a 69-66, Dominique Johnson agitated them all over again with an equalizer, his second 3-pointer of the of the night. OBU’s Tim Bowman retaliated with his own bomb after the Cougars went up 75-72 with less than 5 minutes left.

Oklahoma Baptist appeared to be cracking late in the game with 3 straight turnovers that resulted in 6 straight Cougar points, 4 of which came off consecutive free throws. Azusa Pacific led 83-78 with 1:50, putting the Bison on their heels. Even when Brumfield muscled his way for baseline basket, the Cougars, who had been poised and heady all night long at both ends of the court, were still in control with under a minute to play and up by 3 at 83-80.

One of the nation’s best free throw shooting teams, Azusa Pacific was zeroed in at the line tonight, having made 20-of-22 at the charity stripe, including an 8-for-8 clip from Dominique Johnson, through 39 minutes of play. But Johnson missed the front end of a 1-and-1 opportunity, and the Bison were climbing off the deck for a possession that will be long remembered in the annals of OBU basketball.

With just over 40 seconds left, Hawkins was fouled by Azusa Pacific’s Reggie Owens as he drove to the basket. A 61-percent free throw shooter, Hawkins was true to his nature by making just 1 of his 2 attempts, but when the second one fell to the ground, Brumfield scrambled to pick up the loose ball on the left side of the key. Under pressure from the Cougar defense, Brumfield found Hawkins alone at the top and skipped the ball to him. Without hesitation, Hawkins, a 33-percent shooter from the 3-point line, lifted an arching jumper that found its mark to give OBU an 84-83 lead.

Out of a timeout, Azusa Pacific committed a turnover but was not hurt by it when OBU’s Emmanual Wilson missed 2 free throws with 12 seconds left, opening the door one last time for the Cougars to win their first ever national championship.

Dominique Johnson sprinted up-court and fired a fade-away jumper from the left elbow. His shot banged off the glass and rim, and in the subsequent scramble Marshall Johnson snared the ball on the right side of the key, turned and released a potential game winning shot from 12 feet out as he fell to the ground. The shot was good, but time was gone, and so too were Azusa Pacific’s national championship aspirations.

“I thought we played a great game,” said Leslie, “but they were on a mission.”

For the second time in 5 years, Azusa Pacific’s season ends with the Cougars as the NAIA runner-up. They finish 28-10, while Oklahoma Baptist closes out arguably the best season in school history at 33-3.

Dominique Johnson, who was named to the NAIA All-Tournament team, finished with a game-high 24 points. Owens, also a member of the all-tournament team, had 17 points, while Marshall Johnson finished with 12.

“To be No. 2 in the nation is good, but it still hurts to not be No. 1,” said Owens. “Through the ups and downs of the season, that’s what we still strived for.”

OBU was paced by Hawkins’ 21.

The Cougars return home Wednesday morning and will arrive in front of the Felix Event Center at 10 a.m. (PDT) for a reception that is open to the public.

Follow Cougar Athletics online with Twitter updates, at twitter.com/APUCougars. Cougar Athletics also is available on all web-enabled devices through Azusa Pacific’s mobile website: www.apu.edu/m.