IRVINE, Calif. -- The NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Concordia University got 15-or-more points from 4 different players and sank 29-of-35 free throws to down No. 7 Azusa Pacific in the GSAC Men’s Basketball Postseason Tournament championship game Tuesday evening in the CU Arena.
Forward Jarrel Smith scored a team-high 18 points and 2-time GSAC Player of the Year Justin Johnson added 17, including 11 in the second half when the Eagles held off several Cougar attempts to overtake Concordia.
Azusa Pacific led just once in the game, and it was brief, when freshman Robert Sandoval drove the length of the court for a nifty lay-up that put the Cougars up 8-7 just 4 minutes into play. Thirty seconds later Concordia’s Ben Smith converted a lay-up and from there on out, the Eagles controlled play the rest of the night, leading by as much as 17 at one point early in the second half.
A 10-0 Eagle run over the final 2 minutes of the first half seemingly doomed the Cougars, who had pulled to within 4 at 35-31 following a Sandoval jumper. However, Concordia turned 3 straight Cougar missed shots and a turnover into a mini blitz that gave the Eagles a comfortable 45-31 halftime cushion.
“That stretch to end the first half was the game,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie. “We competed and played hard in the second half, doing what we needed to do. We just dug ourselves too big a hole in the first half, and against a good team like Concordia, it was just too much to overcome.”
Concordia maintained its double-digit lead throughout much of the second half until Azusa Pacific put together an 8-0 run in which Caleb Burgess scored 5 of his 7 points on the night. However, with the Cougars within 6, Smith answered for Concordia with a 3-ball to push Eagle advantage back to 9 at 68-59 with 9 minutes left.
Azusa Pacific got the deficit back to with 5 at 70-65 following a Marshall Johnson drive through the key. However, Cougar killer Austin Simon, who in this season’s 2 regular-season wins over Azusa Pacific scored 30 points and shot 65-percent from the floor, knocked down back-to-back jumpers, part of his 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting off the bench; and when Cameron Gliddon buried a deep 3-pointer from the left wing, Concordia was back up by 12 at 79-67 with just under 4 minutes to play.
All-GSAC center Reggie Owens led Azusa Pacific with his 11th double-double of the season, game-highs of 26 points, on 13-for-15 shooting, and 11 rebounds. He scored 16 second half points, including 8 straight in a 2-minute stretch in which he single-handedly kept Concordia from running away.
“I think Reggie is the most dominant individual player in the GSAC,” said Leslie. “Frankly, I don’t think we’ll play a game the rest of the way where there will a more dominant player on the block than Reggie.”
Sandoval was masterful off the bench, finishing with 20 points in 27 minutes before fouling out. However, beyond Owens and Sandoval, the rest of the Cougars shot a combined 13-for-40 (.325).
“We had some very poor offensive possessions tonight that offered Concordia some very high percentage looks going the other way,” said Leslie. It’s a ‘make-and-miss’ game. We missed, gave them easy makes, and it snowballed.”
With the loss, the Cougar record drops to 28-5. Azusa Pacific will still advance to next week’s NAIA Championship Tournament in Kansas City, Mo., for the 16th consecutive year, the second longest active streak.
“Even if we won tonight, I didn’t think we would have had a chance to move up in the seedings when the bracket comes out tomorrow,” said Leslie. “Everyone in front of us has won, and they tournament committee wasn’t going to put us ahead of Concordia. We really didn’t have anywhere to go. The only thing we gain by tonight is positive momentum that came from playing hard.”
The 32-team field and first-round pairings will be released by the national office on Wednesday (March 9) at 4 p.m. (PST). Click here to watch a live Internet broadcast of the bracket announcement show.