AZUSA, Calif. -- Azusa Pacific, California’s winningest college basketball program over the past 18 years and the NAIA’s top-ranked team, for the moment, found itself in a precarious and unfamiliar position relatively late in its season-opening game tonight against Claremont-Mudd Colleges.
The Cougars had blown nearly everything of a 14-point lead and were in desperate need of spark to keep the fast-charging Stags at bay. They got one in the form of a Dallas Rutherford inbounds steal and lay-up to highlight a 4-point burst that gave the Cougars a somewhat comfortable 7-point advantage with just under 6 minutes left in the game.
For whatever reason, though, Rutherford taunted the victim of his thievery, Claremont’s all-conference forward Chris Blees, not once but twice, first clapping in Blees’ face and then finger-pointing at him down the court. Referee Chuck Jannelli let the first offense slide, but not the second, justifiably slapping Rutherford with a technical foul. Blees knocked down both technical free throws and on the awarded possession the Stags scored again. The technical and subsequent 4-point swing sparked a game-ending 17-8 Stag run, highlighted by 2 more Blees free throws with 4.3 seconds left to lift Claremont-Mudd to a shocking 81-79 victory over Azusa Pacific.
Never mind that the loss will likely knock Azusa Pacific from the NAIA’s top billing when the next coaches’ poll is released in December, it snaps the Cougars’ 42- game winning streak over NCAA Division III teams, and ironically, it was Claremont-Mudd that handed Azusa Pacific its last loss to a DIII school, a 73-69 setback back in the 1990-91 season.
Early on, Azusa Pacific seemed to be headed toward an easy win to push the aforementioned streak to 43 in a row. The Stags didn’t know what hit them with a Cougar defense that swarmed them at every turn, forcing 4 turnovers and holding them without a field goal for the first 4 minutes of the game. Aided by the dominant inside play of senior center Reggie Owens, Azusa Pacific rolled out to a 15-4 lead less than 8 minutes into the contest.
Claremont, though, weathered the Cougars’ opening onslaught, and matched the Cougars’ energy the rest of the half to stay within 10 points, down 44-34 at halftime.
In the opening minutes of the second half, it became crystal clear that the Stags’ halftime adjustments included limiting Owens’ touches, forcing the other 8 Cougars to score, which collectively they struggled to do, producing just 10 field goals.
At the offensive end, Claremont leaned on Blees, and as good as Owens was in the first half, Blees was even better in the second half, scoring 20 of his game-high 25 points, going 5-for-7 from the floor and 10-for-11 at the line.
A 3-pointer by freshman guard Remy Pinson gave Claremont-Mudd its first lead of the game at 74-73 with 3:26 left to play. Another Pinson trey put the Stags back up at 77-76 with 2 minutes left, and Claremont-Mudd never trailed again.
A pair Marshall Johnson free throws for Azusa Pacific did tie the game at 79-79 with 24 seconds left, setting up the Stags’ final game-winning possession.
With the clock winding down under 10 seconds, Blees took the ball at the top of the left wing and drove to his right off a screen. Cougar center De’Angelo Riley jumped the screen and reached for the ball, colliding with Blees and committing an obvious foul. Blees, a 75-percent free throw shooter last year, made both shots.
Mike Caffese’s running jumper in the key banged off the right side of the rim as the final horn sounded.
Owens, who was 7-for-9 from the floor in the first half but just 2-for-4 in the second half, finished with 24 points. Senior guard David Stafford added 12 points.
In his first collegiate game, Pinson, out of Rye, N.Y., tallied 13 points off the bench in 20 minutes of action.
With the setback, Azusa Pacific suffers its first season-opening loss in 10 years. If there is any positive to be linked with the last Cougar squad to lose a season-opener, the 2000-01 Azusa Pacific team went on to win 35 of its next 36 games and advanced to the quarterfinals of the NAIA Tournament.