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Picked Off

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March 18, 2011
Gary Pine
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- It was a hard pick. Pure in form, nasty in look, but far from foul. And it was all that was needed to awaken a set of sleeping Bears.

Unseeded Pikeville College put together a 3-minute, 12-1 run to rally back into a game that was quickly spiraling out of its control and then used a conventional 3-point play with 54 seconds left to complete an 80-75 comeback victory over No. 8-ranked Azusa Pacific in the second round of the NAIA Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament Friday morning in the Municipal Auditorium.

The victory sends the Bears into the NAIA’s quarterfinals for only the second time in program history while the loss ends Azusa Pacific’s quest for a national championship ring that all season seemed like a realistic and attainable goal.

Emotionally, this game turned on a dime. Azusa Pacific was in control, in the midst of a 15-5 run to assume a 58-46 lead following a Danny Nugent lay-up midway through the second half. The Cougars, who led by a point (40-39) at halftime, had mastered the Pikeville zone defense with some second-half adjustments, picking it apart with nifty passing and deft shooting. All the while, the Cougar defense was choking the NAIA’s top-scoring offense. The Bears, who came in averaging 91 points a game, scored just 7 second-half points in 10 minutes, a pace that was suffocating them as they missed 13 of their first 14 shots of the second half.

Then came the pick, and everything changed.

To help Cougar point guard Robert Sandoval clear himself of Pikeville defender Vance Cooksey, Azusa Pacific’s 6-foot-7, 275-pound Reggie Owens set a backcourt screen that did more than just free Sandoval, it floored Cooksey, who gave up 95 pounds and 7 inches to Owens. The burley Owens was unmoved and unfazed as Pikeville’s star player dropped like a ton of bricks in obvious pain.

The Pikeville bench, including its coaching staff, came unglued from the seats, hollering for foul and adding to its volume seconds later when referees stopped a 3-on-1 Bear break because of Cooksey, who was still prone on the floor.

In the minutes that an athletic trainer tended to Cooksey and players barked at referees, Pikeville coaches altered their strategy, abandoning the zone defense in favor of man-to-man coverage. And when Ryan Whitaker drained his only 3-pointer of the game, the Bears had bought in to whatever their coaches wanted. They were awake. They were focused. And they started hounding Cougars at every turn.

Pikeville knocked down 3 straight treys, including one that came off its own missed free throw, and when Cooksey, who returned to play after a brief respite, converted a pair of free throws, the Bears were back in business, down 59-58 with 7 minutes to play.

“Their guy ran into a screen of a big man,” said Azusa Pacific Head Coach Justin Leslie. “It wasn’t a dirty play. It was a hard play. But it fired them up, galvanized their effort and got them emotionally charged, and we didn’t respond.”

The game had returned to its first-half form when there were 9 lead changes and 5 ties. The Cougars kept Pikeville at bay, pushing their lead back to 6 at 64-58 following 2 Owens’ free throws. Yet the Bears would not go away, and when the hand-waving, gangly, and expressive Trevor Setty nailed his fourth 3-pointer from the right wing, Pikeville had its first lead of the second half at 67-66 with 2:38 remaining.

“When they made the switch on defense we were slow to recognize what we needed to do,” said Leslie. “Frankly we didn’t attack the rim very well. For whatever reason we stopped.”

The Cougars eventually knotted the game at 71-all on a Nugent lay-up with 74 seconds left, but on Pikeville’s ensuing possession, Cooksey connected with a baseline-cutting Setty, who converted the reverse lay-up in spite of Nugent’s fifth foul. Setty drained the subsequent free throw to put Bears up 74-71.

Out of a timeout, the Cougars gaffed on a midcourt inbounds play when Marshall Johnson and Sandoval miss-communicated. Cooksey picked up the loose ball and raced in unbothered for a lay-up and a 5-point Bear lead with 45 seconds left. In essence, the comeback was complete and the game was over. A shocked set of Cougars looked on and were left to wonder what might have been.

“Down the stretch we just didn’t take care of the ball,” said Leslie. “That was the story at the end of the game. Five times we thought we had opportunities to get something, but we just turned it over. We didn’t even get into our play. They capitalized and scored off the turnovers.

Cooksey and Setty finished with game-high scoring honors of 21 points apiece.

Pikeville, which registered just 46 points in the first 30 minutes of play, scored 34 in the final 10 minutes of the game, with Cooksey and Setty accounting for 19 points.

Johnson led Azusa Pacific with 18 points. Senior Caleb Burgess, playing in his 124th and final game at Azusa Pacific, added 16 off the bench, while Owens ended his Cougar career with his 12th double-double of the season, 10 points and a career-high 17 rebounds.

Azusa Pacific lost 3 starting seniors over the final 7 minutes of the game, all to fouls. David Stafford was the first to go with 6:58 left in the game. Mike Caffese took a permanent seat with 3:13 left, and Nugent followed on Pikeville’s go-ahead 3-point play in the final minute.

Azusa Pacific was slapped with 18 turnovers, 9 of which came in the final 10 minutes of the game.

"Give Pikeville credit," said Leslie. "They took it from us today."