LA MIRADA, Calif. -- History goes out the window in a rivalry, and the NAIA’s No. 7-ranked Azusa Pacific learned that the hard way with a 65-58 defeat to Biola in front of a sellout crowd of 2,400, who crammed Chase Gymnasium for the final Golden State Athletic Conference regular-season matchup of one of college basketball’s best rivalries.
The Cougars entered the game as the GSAC’s hottest team, winning 12 of its past 14 games since early December. In addition, Azusa Pacific had won 13 of the past 18 games against the Eagles, including four straight entering Tuesday’s clash, and 18 years of GSAC rivalry saw the Cougars surge past Biola with 28 wins in 40 games as conference rivals. However, the Eagles gave the narrative a final gut-wrenching twist, knocking the Cougars out of a share of the GSAC lead in typical Biola fashion.
“We know what it’s like playing against Biola, and it’s hard,” Cougar head coach Justin Leslie said. “You have to compete with everything you have to force your tempo. As we got soft, their slower tempo naturally took over.”
The Eagles were everything Azusa Pacific wasn’t – patient, deliberate, and physical.
The Cougars committed 20 turnovers, a new season-high for the second consecutive game after an 18-turnover performance in Saturday’s 10-point win at Hope International. The resulting nine-point difference in points off turnovers allowed Biola to make the giveaways hurt, especially in the second half when the Eagles turned 12 Cougar turnovers into 12 crucial points.
“That was such a poor performance taking care of the basketball,” Leslie said. “It really came down to toughness, and we weren’t tough enough to compete for the ball. We were careless with the basketball, we got nothing around the basket, and we only got to the free throw line seven times to their 25. Those are all signs of mental toughness indicating that we gave a soft effort. We lost poise, and the big crowd really bothered us.”
Three costly turnovers came in a two-and-a-half minute stretch midway through the second half, shortly after two of Anthony Johnson’s team-high 14 points pulled the Cougars to within two points, 41-39. With 11 minutes remaining in the game, senior guard Brandon Dunson came up with a steal off Biola guard Given Kalipinde to give Azusa Pacific a chance to tie the game heading down the stretch. Kalipinde promptly stole the ball right back for a fast-break layup that pushed the lead to 43-39.
On the next possession, Johnson charged through Kalipinde under the basket, and Davey Hopkins cashed in with a putback basket that made it 45-39. After the teams traded baskets, Biola’s stingy perimeter defense left sophomore point guard Robert Sandoval with the ball in his hands outside the three-point line as the shot clock expired. Barely 30 seconds later, Biola had its largest lead of the game, a nine-point margin at 50-41, with Dakota Anderson’s jumper in the key with 7:50 to play.
The Cougars twice closed the gap to three points, first after holding Biola to just two points over nearly five minutes after Anderson’s basket. Johnson swished a three-pointer, his second of the half, to start the 8-2 run that cut Biola’s lead to 52-49 with 3:16 to play. Kaimarr Price scored two to push the lead back to five, and another Cougar turnover led to a Kalipinde layup and three-point play that knocked B.J. Porter out of the game with five fouls while extending the lead back to eight points, 57-49, with 2:38 remaining.
Biola turned the ball over on its next two possessions, and Dunson knocked down a trey and a short jumper that brought Azusa Pacific back within three points, 61-58, with 33 seconds left. The Eagles missed six-of-12 at the free throw line in the final 1:19 until Chase Adams boarded a Dunson three-point miss with 19 seconds left and nailed a pair of free throws for the final 65-58 margin.
Azusa Pacific got out to a quick start, holding Biola to just two field goals through the game’s first seven minutes. With less than four minutes left in the half, Dunson drilled a three-pointer that gave the Cougars their largest lead of the game at 22-14. However, Adams answered with a trey on the next Eagle possession, his second three-pointer of the half, cutting the lead to 22-17 while sparking an 8-2 Biola run over the final 3:31 of the half that cut Azusa Pacific’s halftime lead to 24-22.
Adams finished with a game-high 17 points, and Kalipinde tallied 16 points with a game-high four steals. Hopkins turned in a solid 13-point, four-rebound, four-assist effort for the Eagles, who overcame a 33 percent first-half shooting effort by hitting 13-of-26 from the field after halftime.
Johnson and junior forward Tyler Monroe each finished with 14 points to lead Azusa Pacific, and the pair combined for 16 rebounds as the Cougars out-rebounded Biola, 40-29. Dunson and Sandoval added 11 points each.
“What’s disappointing is that we got enough offensive rebounds and possessions,” Leslie said. “We out-rebounded them, but the problem was the turnovers and the 17 points those turnovers led to. Points off turnovers have been the Achilles heel of this team lately, and tonight it was enough to cost us the game.”
Perhaps the only thing taking a little sting off of the defeat is the fact that Azusa Pacific still controls its destiny in the race for the GSAC title, even though the other three teams atop the standings all won Tuesday night. The Cougars sit a game behind Westmont, Concordia, and The Master’s, but all four of Azusa Pacific’s conference defeats have come to teams lower in the standings. Should the Cougars knock off all three of the current leaders a second time and end the year in a tie for first place, Azusa Pacific would win the head-to-head tiebreaker and earn the top seed and home-court advantage throughout the GSAC Postseason Tournament.
“All I know is that we’re not in first place anymore,” Leslie said. “We’re not a good road team, and we’ve got to learn to compete. You have to value the ball on the road. The fact we didn’t makes this a big loss, and it hurts.”
Over the final seven games, the Cougars are on the road three more times, including visits to GSAC co-leaders Concordia (Feb. 11) and The Master’s (Feb. 21). Up next for Azusa Pacific are back-to-back home games against Vanguard (Feb. 3) and Fresno Pacific (Feb. 7), where the Cougars are 14-1 this season.
The loss drops Azusa Pacific to 18-5 overall, 7-4 GSAC, while Biola took sole possession of sixth place in the GSAC, improving to 16-7 overall and 6-5 in conference play. Since dropping three straight games by a combined six points, the Eagles have now won four in a row, and nine of Biola’s last 10 GSAC games have been decided by less than 10 points.
VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS (filmed and edited by Rob Small)