AZUSA, Calif. -- The final Felix Event Center meeting between Azusa Pacific and Biola as Golden State Athletic rivals provided one of the great comebacks in the schools’ storied rivalry, as the NAIA’s No. 9-ranked Azusa Pacific rallied from a 12-point second-half deficit for a 66-60 win over the No. 15-ranked Eagles Tuesday night.
Too bad only a handful of people saw it in person.
A rivalry that consistently draws hordes of students from both schools when played at Azusa Pacific’s spacious 3,500-seat Felix Event Center instead attracted less than 1,000 to this year's first installment -- 879 to be exact -- with the GSAC scheduling its best-attended basketball rivalry at the conference's largest facility just two days after New Year's, a time when both schools are not in session for winter break. It was the final time the schools played each other at the Felix Event Center as GSAC rivals, as Azusa Pacific will become a member of the NCAA Div. II Pacific West Conference next season (2012-13).
What should have been one of the legendary tales of one of college basketball’s best rivalries instead became relegated to the footnotes, as the up-tempo Cougars eventually wore down the more deliberate Biola offense with a 19-4 run over the final 6:30 for the win.
“This game was a total dud in terms of the crowd and energy – by far the worst I’ve ever seen for this rivalry,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “Although both schools are on winter break, tonight’s crowd for this rivalry just wasn’t good enough. I think it’s unfortunate, and you would think the executive committee would have done something to protect this rivalry by having it happen with school in session. The number of people we’re able to draw and the media coverage for it are great for the whole conference. I think it was a missed opportunity not only for Azusa Pacific and Biola, but a missed opportunity for the GSAC, as well.”
Senior G Marshall Johnson scored a game-high 15 points for Azusa Pacific, and his pull-up jumper from the left elbow started the game-deciding run with the first of 12 straight points, cutting Biola's lead to 56-49 before he later drilled a three-pointer that pulled the Cougars to within one, 56-55, with less than five minutes to play.
“A lot of our new guys haven’t played against Biola, and that sagging man defense they play is something you have to get used to,” Johnson said. “Some of your driving lanes aren’t there, and they give you different looks that make you seem like you’re open until they close out and contest your shot.”
Azusa Pacific took the lead for good on back-to-back buckets from junior F Tyler Monroe, whose left-handed layup with three minutes left gave the Cougars their first lead since midway through the first half. The next time down the floor, freshman point guard Robert Sandoval worked his way into the lane with the shot clock winding down for a lob to Monroe, who finished off the 12-point swing with a one-handed slam that pushed the lead to 59-56 with two minutes to play.
“With about eight minutes left, Robert just decided to take over,” Leslie said. “At halftime, I knew that if we were going to go down, we would go down with Robert making decisions and making plays. He didn’t shoot the ball as well tonight as he had been from long range, but getting six assists with no turnovers is what I call winning basketball.”
Sandoval then scored on a dribble drive into the paint, answering a pair of Davey Hopkins free throws with a minute and a half remaining to put the Cougars on top, 61-58. Kaimarr Price scored the last two of his game-high 23 points with 16.5 seconds left, putting back a missed three-pointer to cut Azusa Pacific's lead to 61-60, but Johnson drained two free throws after he was fouled on the ensuing inbounds play to push the lead back to 63-60.
Sandoval and senior F Anthony Johnson's trap along the perimeter forced Zack Zaragoza into a low pass that point guard Given Kalipinde fumbled out of bounds with 4.1 seconds to play, and senior G Justin Haynes provided the final margin by taking the inbounds pass the length of the floor for a layup and free throw with nine-tenths of second left on the clock.
Sandoval finished with nine points and six assists without a turnover, and senior G Brandon Dunson added 11 points and three assists. The Cougar bench outscored Biola's reserves, 23-0.
“It was definitely a frustrating game, because Biola plays that compact defense that makes it hard to drive,” Sandoval said. “It took us some time all the way to the end of the game to get some people who could get into the lane, kick out, and get good shots, and several people stepped up and hit some big ones.”
Price, who hit eight of 11 shots in a 17-point first half, scored his first second-half points with 13:03 remaining to give Biola its largest lead of the game at 45-33, and a jumper one step inside the three-point line gave the Eagles a 49-42 edge with just under 10 minutes to play. However, Biola’s best offensive threat missed on his next five shot attempts, opening the door for Azusa Pacific’s late rally.
“Price made shots early, and anytime somebody makes shots you have to respect them a little bit more,” Leslie said. “At halftime, there was no difference in our game plan, but I challenged our guys to make it tougher for him. He finished with 23 points, but he did it in 20 shots after scoring 17 points on 11 shots in the first half.”
Biola was led by Price's 23-point effort, and the Eagles finished with a 40-30 edge on the boards thanks to a game-high 10 rebounds from Hopkins, who also scored eight points. Chase Adams scored 16 points and registered three steals, and Andre Murillo finished with nine points and seven rebounds.
Azusa Pacific never trailed in the first 12 minutes of the opening half, but Price snapped a three-minute scoreless stretch for both teams with a basket that gave Biola its first lead at 18-17, with 7:49 remaining in the half. He then drilled a three-pointer, his only long-range attempt of the game, to lead Biola on a 7-0 run that helped the Eagles take a 29-26 halftime lead.
“Everything we had focused on trying to do in terms of forcing the tempo and playing fast and on attack completely blew up in our face in the first half,” Leslie said. “We had awful shot selection and didn’t put any pressure on their defense, so we had to scrap that game plan at halftime. We got into the paint in the first half, but we just took some awful shots. In the second half, we finally just drove and kicked to guys who were wide open on the perimeter. As bad as our efficiency was in the first 30 minutes, it felt like the pace of the game did eventually get to Biola. They began missing some of the shots they had made earlier, and we started rebounding them. That was all we needed.”
During halftime, the presidents of both schools competed in a head-to-head free-throw shooting contest. In the 60-second matchup, Biola president Dr. Barry Corey edged Azusa Pacific president Dr. Jon Wallace, 6-5, with each wearing the rival school’s t-shirt during the contest.
With the win, Azusa Pacific's fourth straight against Biola, the Cougars have now won six in a row to improve to 12-2 overall and 2-1 in GSAC play. The Eagles fall to 11-4 overall, 1-2 GSAC.
“We don’t have time to start feeling comfortable, but what we do have right now is a good focus,” Johnson said. “We need that because we have so many big games coming up right away. We’re still a new team, we’re still working on our team chemistry, and we need to continue to focus in on what we need to do to be successful.”
Conference play continues this weekend, when Azusa Pacific visits Vanguard on Saturday, Jan. 7, while Biola resumes its GSAC slate the same night when it hosts the NAIA’s top-ranked Concordia.