AZUSA, Calif. -- The schedule says tonight’s game was the last time Azusa Pacific and Concordia face each other this season. Smart money says the schedule is wrong.
Round 2 of what some might consider to be an eventual 4-round heavyweight fight went to Concordia. The NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Eagles pushed their NAIA-leading winning streak to 18 straight with an 86-83 victory over No. 5 Azusa Pacific before a crowd of 2,747 in the Felix Event Center Friday night.
Azusa Pacific has its 14-game winning streak, formerly the second longest in the NAIA, come to end, and with it Concordia sweeps the season series with the Cougars.
Or has it yet?
These 2 teams could very well meet again in the GSAC Tournament championship game in early March, which with tonight’s verdict is likely to be staged at the CU Arena in Irvine, and as Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie hinted at – they could see each other again in the NAIA Tournament in Kansas City in mid-March.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we played 4 times this year,” said Leslie. “Concordia is real good, but we are too.”
In tonight’s round, Eagle guard Peter Smith, a transfer from the University of San Francisco, delivered the round-house punches that felled the Cougars, draining 8-of-12 shots, including 5 from beyond the arc, to score a team-high 22 points, and fellow guard Austin Simon added 15 points, including 4 from the free throw line in the final minute, to keep a surging set of Cougars at bay.
Concordia led for all but 2 minutes of the second half, but never by much. A mini-run over a 4-minute stretch midway through the half in which the Eagles scored on 5 of 7 possessions, which included a Smith trey on one trip, proved to be costly for Azusa Pacific in the end. The Eagles turned a one-possession deficit into a 3-possession hole, assuming its largest lead of the half at 72-65 on a pair of Simon free throws with 8 minutes remaining.
“That was as big as a defensive letdown as we have had in some time,” said Leslie. “Going into the game we talked about getting stops and being committed to that, but that stretch in the second half hurt us.”
Led by arguably the GSAC’s top freshman, guard Robert Sandoval, Azusa Pacific rallied back to within 2 twice in the final 3 minutes, including 83-81 following a Sandoval 3-pointer from the top of the key with 29 seconds left. After Concordia’s Peter Smith converted only 1 of 2 free throws to keep it a one-possession game, the Cougars could not convert on 3 shots in one possession, including a rim-rattler with 16 seconds left.
As they did in the first meeting, an 83-82 Concordia win in Irvine back on Dec. 4, the Eagles beat up Azusa Pacific on the glass, attacking the GSAC’s top-rebounding team at one of its core strengths. Concordia out-rebounded Azusa Pacific, 34-26, which included 14 offensive boards which led 16 second-chance points for the Eagles (by comparison, Azusa Pacific had just 5).
Still the Eagles had every reason to be nervous in the waning moments of the game, after Azusa Pacific stole a 42-41 halftime lead with a 15-3 run over the final 5 minutes of the first half. Concordia seemed to be in control from the outset. Led by Smith’s laser-like shooting, the Eagles made 6 of their first 9 shots to roll out to a 17-6 lead just 5 minutes into the game. A Smith lay-up pushed the advantage to 13 at 33-20 with just over 6 minutes left in the half.
“In the first half, Concordia shot the ball very well,” said Leslie. “They made some very difficult shots, and they’re capable of that. What let us down is that we didn’t block out and allowed Concordia 9 offensive rebounds (in the first half).”
The Eagles did appear to tire, and Danny Nugent and Cougar mates took advantage. Nugent buried a couple of long treys and knocked down another jumper, scoring 12 of his 21 points in the first half. When Concordia’s Taylor King committed back-to-back turnovers in the final 80 seconds, Azusa Pacific responded with a Marshall Johnson dunk followed by a Reggie Owens lay-up with 7 seconds left to not only give the Cougars their first lead of the game, but a surprising one at that.
When Owens opened the second half with another lay-up, Azusa Pacific had its biggest lead of the night at 44-41. Less than 2 minutes later, however, Smith rebounded an Owens’ miss and answered with a lay-up of his own at the other end of the court to put Concordia up 48-46 with 17:33 left in the game. Concordia never trailed again.
“Though we out-shot Concordia from the floor, they consistently got better looks than us,” said Leslie. “We really had to work hard for our points, and they got theirs way too easy.”
Sandoval, who was in a one-on-one match-up with Smith all night, finished with a career-high 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting, to go along with a game-high 5 assists. Johnson added 14, but for the third time in the past 7 games, Owens was held under 10 points and has now seen his scoring average dip from a season-high 19.0 back on Jan. 7 to a near season-low 16.7 right now.
With the victory, Concordia improves to 20-2 overall, 12-0 in the GSAC. Azusa Pacific falls to 19-3 overall, 10-2 in the GSAC.
Azusa Pacific must regenerate its emotion for another big game Tuesday (Feb. 1) when the Cougars visit Biola for what is surely to be a sold-out game in Chase Gym. Tip-off is at 7:30 p.m.