IRVINE, Calif. -- Senior guard Ashton Roberts, who has played in some of Azusa Pacific’s biggest games over the past 4 years, had been relegated to somewhere near the end of the Cougars’ very deep bench in recent weeks. Not because of his play, but simply because of the Cougars’ wealth of talent.
Over the past 7 weeks, he had played a grand total of 7 minutes of basketball, 2 games, all in mop-up duty. So when he surprisingly entered tonight’s GSAC Tournament semifinal with the Cougars down 13 points to Point Loma Nazarene University and 14 minutes left in the game, one had to wonder if Cougar Head Coach Justin Leslie had given up. And who could have blamed him? His Cougars had trailed for all but 2 minutes, had been down by as much as 18 points, and were shooting an abysmal 18-percent (6-for-33) from the floor.
However, Roberts was not inserted for janitorial purposes. Rather, he was to be the spark. And while his line may not show it -- 0 points, 3 rebounds and 1 steal -- his 8 minutes of play in the second half pick up the NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Cougars and propelled Azusa Pacific to a 57-55 come-from-behind victory that puts the Cougars back in the GSAC Tournament championship game for a third straight year.
“Ashton didn’t make a shot but he lit us up,” said Leslie. “I had a gut feeling that the way this game was playing, he would be the right guy for us. He was the emotional spark that made the thing turn tonight.”
Roberts offered energy when Azusa Pacific most needed it and was a vital player of a 19-7 run that got Azusa Pacific back into the game.
“When we got the game back to single digits, that’s the moment when we believed again,” said Leslie.
Roberts has always been a “do-whatever-it-takes” type of player. As a 2008 freshman, when he was supposed to redshirt, 3 point guards went down with injuries and Roberts was forced to play, coming off the bench in 9 consecutive games to score 26 points. When the injured players eventually came back, he played in just 5 of the final 19 games. As a 2009 sophomore, his playing time sputtered through the first two-thirds of the season, but he came off the bench in key situations over the final 12 contests, including all 3 GSAC Tourney games. Last year as a junior, he played in 24 of the Cougars’ first 25 games until he got squeezed out of playing time, appearing in just 3 games over a 10-game span, including 4 straight playoff games. Yet, at the NAIA Tournament, when starting guard Mike Caffese went down with a season-ending ankle injury, Roberts found his role again, playing the quarterfinal, semifinal and championship games, averaging 3 assists.
This year, as a veteran senior, he had to accept a lesser role, which was difficult as that was for him to swallow. As the season wore on, he played less and less.
“It’s been a difficult season, but I’ve never been the type to give up,” said Roberts. “We needed energy tonight, and I’m an energy player. We were losing 50-50 plays. We weren’t hustling. We weren’t rebounding, and I told myself to go in there do what everybody else was not doing, hoping it would be contagious.”
All-GSAC center Reggie Owens, who missed all 5 of his shots in the first half, started making baskets. Fellow senior Caleb Burgess, who is fourth on Azusa Pacific’s career 3-point field goals chart, started to make 3-pointers, 4 of them to be exact, including one from the right corner that gave Azusa Pacific a 54-51 lead with 1:35 left in the game.
“Point Loma may have been getting a little gassed, but I think we picked it up too,” said Burgess. “Ashton came off the bench to give us a huge lift. We felt the momentum and just rode it.”
Burgess bookended a 10-3 Cougar run with a pair of 3-pointers that pulled Azusa Pacific to within 6 at 46-40 with 6:45 left in the game. From there, Azusa Pacific methodically chipped away at the deficit. Point Loma Nazarene went 5 minutes without making a field goal, and when Marshall Johnson found Owens in the key for an easy 2, Azusa Pacific had completed the comeback with a 51-48 lead.
The Sea Lions answered with a Wil Bush trey to snap the 5-minute dry spell and momentarily tie the game again, but Burgess answered with the aforementioned trey. A pair of Owens’ free throws with 27 seconds left kept Azusa Pacific up by 3 at 56-53, and the Cougars heavily defended the 3-point shot on the Sea Lions’ ensuing possession, yielding instead an easy Marek Klassen lay-up with 9 seconds left.
Cougar senior David Stafford was fouled on the inbounds pass and made 1-of-2 free throws to put the Cougars up 57-55 and set up one last chance for the Sea Lions.
Klassen again drove the lane but couldn’t get a clean look at the basket and instead kicked the ball out to Rhett Beal on the left wing. As the final horn sounded Beal’s high arching 3-point shot appeared to be on target but instead hit the back iron of the rim and ricocheted out, allowing Azusa Pacific to escape with its fifth last-second or overtime decision in the past 6 games.
“It’s been an emotional 2 weeks for us, and these down-to-the-wire games have been draining,” added Leslie. “It doesn’t help that in Hope, Vanguard, The Master’s, Cal Baptist and Point Loma, we’re playing teams that are battling for their playoff life – everyone of them were playing for one more game and therefore played with great energy and intensity.”
Burgess finished with a game-high 16 points, and was the only Cougar to make 50-percent of his shots, converting 6-of-11, including 4-of-8 from the arc. Johnson added 14, 7 in each half, while Owens collected 12 points, 10 of which came in the final 10 minutes of the game.”
“Once we figured out how to get Reggie some touches and some shots, outside shots started to fall,” said Leslie. It’s a complimentary thing. For us they both work together. When we’re not doing well inside, we’re not doing well outside either, and we didn’t find that rhythm until pretty deep into the second half.”
Point Loma had its rhythm from the opening tip. The Sea Lions, who during the regular-season lost to Azusa Pacific in double overtime at home and let a tight game slip away in the final 3 minutes at Azusa, figured they were going to get their revenge when they scored 12 consecutive points to run out to a 12-3 lead to start the game. Though Azusa Pacific rallied a bit, Point Loma fashioned a 10-0 run to assume a 30-14 lead.
And as good as they were on offense, making 11 of their first 20 shots, the Sea Lions were even better on defense, holding the Cougars to just 5-for-30 (.167) shooting in the first half, stuffing the middle and closing hard on perimeter shots.
“They had a heck of a game plan,” said Leslie. “Defensively, Point Loma completely changed it up from the first 2 games. They made this a 3-point shooting game. We had 14 points in the paint. We haven’t had a half this year with only 14 points in the paint, let alone a whole game. They did a great job of mixing it up on defense and making us uncomfortable. That’s postseason basketball. That’s what teams have to do. (Point Loma Coach) Ethan (Hamilton) is a sharp guy and his players played hard.”
The Sea Lions maintained their 16-point advantage at halftime, owning a 34-18 lead, and when Greg Murray opened the second half with a lay-up, Point Loma was seemingly sitting pretty with a hefty 18-point cushion.
Then Ashton Roberts entered the game.
“I was a little surprised my number was called,” said Roberts, “but I’m always ready. I think I was the energy boost tonight, the person who got us over the hump. It lifted my spirits a bit.”
And now for the second straight year and the sixth time in the past 9 years, Azusa Pacific and Concordia University will meet in the GSAC Tourney title game. The Eagles downed Fresno Pacific University, 66-53, in tonight’s other semifinal. The Cougars have won 3 of 5 previous meetings with Concordia in the conference tournament championship game, but the Eagles have handed Azusa Pacific 2 of its 4 losses this season, downing the Cougars, 83-82 on a tip-in at the buzzer in Irvine on Dec. 4, and posting an 86-83 verdict in Azusa on Jan. 28.
The championship game is set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (March 8) in Concordia’s CU Arena in Irvine.
“The opportunity to compete for championships is why guys come to Azusa Pacific, to get a chance to play in games like this,” said Leslie. “Back to back years we’ve won the GSAC Tournament, and we want to defend it.”