AZUSA, Calif. -- B.J. Porter started out having a night he wanted to forget, but what he ended up with was one he’ll never forget.
Porter, who had to endure an uncharacteristically cold shooting night after participating in pre-game senior day ceremonies, knocked down three free throws with seven seconds left in regulation, and his early three-pointer in overtime propelled Azusa Pacific to a 78-71 overtime victory over a Grand Canyon squad that was seeking a share of the Pacific West Conference regular-season title.
“The beginning was very emotional for me with it being senior night, because it’s been a long journey for me,” Porter said. “I came in here very immature, but Coach Leslie has helped raise me into a man. He’s taught me to keep striving, keep pushing, and keep competing. I went through a couple of dry spells tonight, but he told me he still had faith in me and wanted me to keep shooting, so that’s what I did.”
The Cougars rallied from five down with 3:34 to play in the game, twice closing to within a point in the final three minutes. Both times, however, Grand Canyon knocked down a pair of free throws to extend the cushion back to three. With the closing seconds ticking away and needing three points to tie the game, Porter was fouled on a potential game-tying three-point attempt by Justin Foreman with exactly seven seconds left in regulation.
“I couldn’t let down the guys on this team, because we had fought so hard for this,” Porter said. “I didn’t shoot free throws all that well yesterday at practice; it was bad. Even my cousin made fun of me. After that, our team manager went with me to shoot free throws for about 30 minutes, and look what happened – God works in mysterious ways.”
Up to that point, Porter had made just three of his 14 shots from the field, including two-of-nine three-pointers, in what could have been the final game of the charismatic guard’s college basketball career. After swishing the first two of the three-shot foul, Porter waited out Grand Canyon’s final timeout of regulation before knocking down the third with a shot that bounced once on the front rim and twice on the back before dropping through the net. That tied the game at 60-60, and Braylon Pickrel’s three-point attempt with two seconds left was off the mark to force overtime.
“Through about the middle of the second half, he hadn’t made hardly anything,” Leslie said. “I tried to keep encouraging him because I want him to stay confident, and it was so nice for him to rebound from that poor start and be able to finish strong. He was running on fumes and emotion, and even though he left us in a little suspense on that last free throw, it was clutch.”
Redshirt freshman Jared Zoller drove straight to the basket for an easy layup after Azusa Pacific won the overtime opening tip. After a Sharif Watson block of Joshua Lowery at the other end, sophomore guard Troy Leaf found Porter open on the left wing for a three-pointer that pushed the lead to 65-60. Although Grand Canyon got back to within three points twice in overtime, both times on a pair of free throws, a Leaf trey with 2:17 to play pushed the lead to 70-64.
“Grand Canyon’s a very veteran team, so the only thing I had in the back of my head was that they just beat BYU-Hawaii in overtime,” Porter said. “The only thing I could think about was getting another stop. With Grand Canyon, you can never feel too comfortable.”
The ‘Lopes never got closer than four points the rest of the way, with a Watson dunk pushing the lead to 72-65 with just over a minute to play. A pair of Zoller free throws pushed the lead to eight, 74-66, with less than a minute left, and a Zoller slam as he sprinted the length of the court behind the full-court pressure with 14 seconds to play sealed Grand Canyon’s fate as PacWest runner-up. Porter hit one-of-two free throws with 1.3 seconds left, and after time ran out the raucous Azusa Pacific student section stormed the floor to celebrate the overtime upset.
“This is a night I’ll never forget; this is an unbelievable feeling,” Porter said. “I love our team, I love our school, and the way that our school and our fans had our backs was what pushed us through. After we made a couple runs and hit the free throws to send it into overtime, our fans really rattled them, and that’s not easy to do because Grand Canyon’s a mature team. The way our fans stepped up really helped us a lot.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific wraps up its inaugural year in the PacWest with a winning conference record, going 9-8 while improving to 12-13 overall as it advances to next week’s National Christian College Athletic Association regional playoffs.
The Cougars, who needed a .500 overall record to qualify for the NCCAA postseason but had their scheduled visit to Hawai‘i Hilo cancelled last weekend due to an unsafe playing surface, were granted a waiver earlier in the week that would allow them to participate if they won the final two games of the regular season. Azusa Pacific is expected to host California Baptist on Tuesday, March 5, at 7:30 p.m., in a men’s and women’s NCCAA playoff doubleheader with the Cougar women, who will host Point Loma.
“We were playing a game of basketball in March that meant something,” Leslie said. “It’s called March Madness for a reason, and our life was on the line. If we don’t win this, we’re still in that locker room doing our hugs and kisses goodbye, because it’s over, and we weren’t ready for that. If we go out, I just don’t want any regrets; I want to leave it all out there. If we can do that, we’re going to grow up and be tough enough to go out there and have some success.”
Porter, who admitted to struggling with his emotions throughout the night, finished the evening with 19 points and four turnovers, but it was Leaf, the team’s leading scorer on the season, who kept the Cougars within reach with a 25-point, five-assist effort. Leaf scored 13 of his 25 points in the second half, and his 22 points at the end of regulation also led all scorers. He scored a pair of free throws and a layup on consecutive possessions to cut a five-point Grand Canyon lead to just a single point, 56-55, with 2:37 to play.
“I wanted to win this game so bad, not for myself, but for B.J., because I know how bad he wants this and how bad he loves this game,” Leaf said. “My main focus was to make sure B.J. got to play another game.”
Leaf scored his final points on a long three-pointer with 2:17 left, extending a three-point margin into a 70-64 cushion after the Cougars had a Watson breakaway layup taken away by an offensive goaltending call the possession prior to Leaf’s trey.
“For a while, we’d been taking steps forward and just keep taking steps back, but tonight we took another step forward from Thursday’s game,” Leaf said. “We’ve known all year that we can play with the best teams, and it’s great to finally get a win against one of the best teams in the region. It really builds confidence, especially at the end of a year when things haven’t been going our way, to get the win that allows us to keep playing.”
Lowery, who scored the game-winning layup with 14 seconds left when the teams first met this year in Phoenix, scored 15 points to share the scoring lead with Killian Larson, who tallied 15 points and a game-high 12 rebounds before fouling out on the Watson basket that was called back for goaltending with 2:50 remaining in overtime.
Although they were out-rebounded by a 47-35 margin, Azusa Pacific piled up a 34-8 scoring advantage in points in the paint. Watson scored 12 points to go with eight rebounds and a block, scoring half his points on three dunks, and Zoller added 11 points for the Cougars. Junior forward Christian Katuala added five points and a team-high nine rebounds.
“Jared and Sharif are growing up a little bit, and they made huge plays down the stretch,” Leslie said. “Grand Canyon would pressure and do everything they could to wear Troy out, so we had to put the ball in some other guys’ hands to make a play. They went out and made plays through the pressure.”
Leaf scored nine points in the first half, with Watson adding eight points and five boards to help Azusa Pacific take a 29-26 halftime lead, its fourth consecutive game with a lead heading into the second half. The Cougars built the lead up to seven points several times within the first five minutes of the second half until a pair of Blake Davis three-pointers sparked a 15-2 Grand Canyon run over the next five-minute stretch. The turnaround gave the ‘Lopes a 47-41 lead, their largest leading margin of the game, with 9:32 remaining in regulation.
With his team needing a spark, Porter stepped into a three-pointer on the left wing, calmly knocking it down to snap the Cougars’ scoring drought. Leaf answered the next Grand Canyon bucket with another three-pointer, this time chopping the lead to two points at 49-47 after coming off a screen for a pull-up trey from the top of the key.
“I was so proud, and to see those guys play that hard for me, I shed some tears near the end of the game when I was at the free throw line with just a few seconds left,” Porter said. “I just thought, ‘Wow, I love these guys, and I’m going to miss them.’ It’s March Madness – no matter what my career is going to be over by the end of March. This was about when we want it to be over, and we want to keep this going a while longer.”
Although PacWest title hopes were dashed for Grand Canyon, which fell to 23-6 overall and 14-4 in the PacWest following its second straight overtime contest, the ‘Lopes will still receive a first-round bye as the No. 2-seed in next week’s PacWest Tournament at Azusa Pacific. The six-team conference tournament, which does not include the league’s transitioning members, will crown the PacWest’s automatic bid into the NCAA West Regional playoffs.