AZUSA, Calif. -- Mike Caffese’s turnaround jumper in the key with 1.7 seconds left capped his own personal showcase that led the NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific to a thrilling 73-71 come-from-behind victory over California Baptist University in the opening round of the 18th Annual Golden State Athletic Conference Postseason Tournament Thursday evening in the Felix Event Center.
A senior guard who is known for his defense and ball distribution skills, Caffese tossed in a little bit of offensive magic as well, scoring half of his 10 points in the final 2 minutes to complete the Cougars’ comeback from a 10-point deficit in the final 6 minutes of play.
The victory seemed improbable just minutes before as Cal Baptist, which fell twice to Azusa Pacific during the regular season, used a 16-3 run to assume a lead that it would hold for 14 of the final 15 minutes of the game. In fact, the Lancer cushion ballooned to as much as 11 midway through the half and was still as large as 10 at 60-50 following an Ivan Patterson half-court steal and breakaway dunk with 6:37 left in the game. And though the Cougars whittled half of the deficit, the Lancers were still up by 5 with 2 minutes to play after Patterson offered yet another dunk.
Caffese, who at barely 5-foot-10 has never dunked a ball, answered in his own big way, and in a more convincing fashion. First he knocked down a 3-pointer, just his tenth 3-ball trey on the season, after being left wide open in the left corner. His trey with 1:47 to play pulled the Cougars to within 2 at 69-67. After CBU failed to score at the other end, Caffese then found Reggie Owens streaking down the left side, and Owens converted a lay-up to tie the game with 1:19.
On CBU’s ensuing possession, Caffese intercepted a Nick Paulson bounce pass and fed Owens with a half court pass that he converted for a fast-break lay-up that put Azusa Pacific up 71-69 with 33 seconds left.
“I showed on a screen and the guy lost the ball,” said Owens. “I knew Mike would get it because he is everywhere, so I leaked out and he hit me with a great pass for the lay-up.”
Cal Baptist answered with a clear-out for All-GSAC forward Luke Evans, who drove 15 feet uncontested on the left side of the key for a lay-up to tie the game with 12 seconds remaining.
Out of a timeout, Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie drew up the final play which put Caffese in the key with the option to kick out to any of 4 Cougars that would surely be open. None were.
With no other available option, Caffese called his own number, twisting in the air and releasing a 4-foot running, turn-around jumper that bounced high off the back iron, then the side of the rim and finally through the net, leaving little opportunity for the Lancers to answer.
“Multiple guys on this team over the course of their careers have proven to be big when we needed them,” said Leslie, “and Mike is one of them. He is not a shooter, but he is a player, and players make plays in crunch time.”
Caffese finished with 10 points and game-highs of 6 assists and 5 steals. Until Caffese took center stage, Owens had carried the Cougar load, putting in his usual All-GSAC effort with a game-high 24 points on 10-for-15 shooting to go along with 7 rebounds.
Owens accounted for the Cougars’ only field goal during an 8-minute stretch in which Cal Baptist turned a 42-40 Azusa Pacific lead into a Lancer 56-45 advantage following a Justice Von Wright 3-pointer with 10 minutes left in the game. The run capped furious 30 minutes of play in which both teams pushed the ball up and down the court while playing an in-your-face brand of defense.
Still up by 8 following a pair of Patterson free throws, Cal Baptist, which employed just 8 players on the night, slowed the tempo to a deliberate pace, spreading the floor and winding the 35-second shot clock to final ticks of each possession. That seemingly opened the door for the ball-hawking Caffese, the GSAC leader in steals who picked up 3 of his 5 thefts in the final 4 minutes.
“I felt like once they quit attacking the basket, it opened up opportunities for me on defense,” said Caffese. “I was able to pick their dribble or pass, and from that we generated some easy baskets on offense.”
“Cal Baptist played a great game tonight, the best they've played against us this year and in several weeks," said Leslie. "However, when they went to their stall game we were able to ramp up the pressure. You look back on Mike Caffese’s career against Cal Baptist, when they start stalling is when he does his best.”
All-GSAC junior Marshall Johnson added 14 points and a team-high 8 rebounds. His 3-ball with just over 6 minutes to play ignited the Cougars’ game-ending 23-11 run.
Cal Baptist, which was paced by Paulson’s 16 points, has its season come to an end at 14-16. Azusa Pacific improves to 27-4.
The victory puts the Cougars back in the GSAC Tourney semifinal for the 17th time where they will meet Point Loma Nazarene University, a surprise foe after the Sea Lions upset No. 11-ranked Biola University, 65-63, on the Eagles’ home court in La Mirada tonight. The other semi matches Concordia University against Fresno Pacific University. Both games will be played Saturday (March 5) in Concordia’s CU Arena in Irvine, Calif. Azusa Pacific and Point Loma will tip off at 5:30 p.m., followed by the Concordia/Fresno Pacific game at 7:30 p.m.
The eventual conference tournament championship game is slated for Tuesday (March 8) at 7:30 p.m. at the site of the highest remaining seed.