Last year, Cougar Athletics counted down the last 30 days of summer with the Cougar Countdown blog series, which contained 30 items of interest to Cougar fans leading into the 2012-13 school year. For the summer of 2013, Cougar Athletics takes a look back with a ranking of Azusa Pacific’s top 13 teams of all-time, which was compiled by the office of Sports Information with input from current and past coaches and administrators. The top 13 teams in Cougar Athletics history will be revealed one at a time each Thursday throughout the summer, culminating with the No. 1 team on August 22.
MAY 30 -- No. 13: 2000 Softball
JUNE 6 -- No. 12: 2005 Men’s Tennis
JUNE 13 -- No. 11: 1985 Football
JUNE 20 -- No. 10: 1998 Men’s Basketball
JUNE 27 -- No. 9: 1983 Track & Field
JULY 4 -- No. 8: 2011 Women’s Basketball
JULY 11 -- No. 7: 1980 Volleyball
JULY 18 -- No. 6: 2007 Baseball
JULY 25 -- No. 5: 2007 Men’s Soccer
The countdown continues with the No. 4 team:
2000-01 Azusa Pacific Men’s Basketball
Final NAIA ranking: 3rd
Men’s basketball at Azusa Pacific has a rich history that now spans more than five decades, winning four Christian college national championships in the 1960s and 1970s under NAIA Hall of Fame coaching legend Cliff Hamlow and most recently advancing to a pair of NAIA title games within the past decade. For a program whose history is filled with accolades and accomplishments, the 2001 Cougars exemplified the most significant turning point not just for Cougar basketball, but for an entire athletics program which was on the verge of initiating what became an unprecedented run of eight consecutive Directors’ Cups from 2005-12.
Setting school-records for wins (35) and longest winning streak (21 games), the Cougars capped a near-decade of dominance within the Golden State Athletic Conference with a season that truly elevated Azusa Pacific into one of the NAIA’s perennial powers at the national level. By capturing its unprecedented ninth consecutive regular-season conference championship, the Cougars extended their title run from the iconic but outdated Cougardome into the brand-new Felix Event Center, a sparkling $14 million facility that eagerly awaited a new chapter of Azusa Pacific athletics tradition.
“We had looked forward to moving into the Event Center for such a long time, and that was huge for all of us because it more or less reaffirmed what we had done as a program,” Odell said. “It took us from an embarrassing place to play to having the ultimate place to play, and it coincided with our success and the program we had developed.”
“I remember going into the building by myself, going up to the very top row of seating to look down at the court. I remember feeling like the Lord had blessed us in so many ways. It was fantastic for the school, it was fantastic for these players who had earned the reward of being able to play in such a nice place, and I just thought about how the school had changed. This building proved to me that we were a first-class university, and even though this was a small part of that, I thought it was indicative of the whole university.”
The Cougars couldn’t have left a better first impression in the new building, fashioning a 14-1 record in its new digs after opening the year with four wins in four games at the Cougardome as the final touches were put on the Felix Event Center. Over the course of the year, Azusa Pacific won 35 times in a 36-game stretch, posting winning streaks of 14 and 21 games around a single GSAC loss between season-opening and season-ending defeats.
Along the way, NAIA Hall of Fame head coach Bill Odell utilized a talented seven-man playing rotation that featured one senior – fifth-year graduate student Justin Leslie, who had been a part of the Cougars’ Final Four teams of 1998 and 1999 and missed the 2000 season due to injury. Leslie and sophomore guard Jeff Staniland were two of just four players who returned with playing experience for the Cougars, and Odell filled out the rotation by surrounding his veterans with four talented transfers and a sharpshooting true freshman.
“At that time, I was already married and going to graduate school, so this was like playing with my little brothers,” said Leslie, who would later serve as an assistant coach to Odell before taking over as head coach following Odell’s retirement in 2006. “My role at that time was how to put this thing together, to wrap up my career. My senior year was coming to the realization that I wasn’t the best player on the team, but I could be the best teammate I could be to try to help the team win. That was the most gratifying part of that year.”
Caleb Gervin, a sophomore transfer from Louisville, joined Staniland in the backcourt, while Odell paired Leslie in the frontcourt with junior college transfer John Bourne. Gervin and Bourne led a balanced scoring effort, averaging 14.4 points each, although all seven regulars averaged 9.6 points or better during conference play. In fact, all seven served as a leading game scorer at least twice, and no player led the team in scoring for more than two consecutive games.
“This team wasn’t as deep as some of my teams, but what I remember most is trying to figure out who the starters were,” Odell recalled. “Once we got into conference, we needed to establish our starting lineup and maintain it so their roles would be drawn out for them. That really helped us throughout the rest of the year; we had a set starting lineup and went from there. They all accepted their roles without complaining, and there was no question of their talent, either.”
Anthony Haggins started the first 14 games of the season, but he was sidelined for the first two weeks of conference play. In his absence, 6-foot-7 true freshman Brett Michel stepped into the starting lineup and stayed there the rest of the season as he shot a team-high 47 percent from three-point range.
“At every spot, we had guys who could play multiple positions, so the way we competed in practice got us used to playing against other good players,” Haggins said. “I didn’t care whether I started or came off the bench, as long as I played. I just wanted to win, and if that meant I would come off the bench, I would do that. I embraced it because I knew I could play as hard as possible and provide some energy and momentum to get the crowd into the game, and I loved it. I would say, one through eight, any of us could have started at any other school in the GSAC. I believed in the person who played in front of me; our games were different, but Brett was very good and he affected the game in a different way than I did.”
Rounding out the rotation was another long-range marksman in Steve McIlwain, another transfer who was his team’s leading scorer as a junior college teammate of Bourne. McIlwain averaged 11.5 points primarily as a reserve and was one of three Cougars who knocked down over 40 percent from beyond the three-point arc, helping lead Azusa Pacific to a team three-point shooting percentage of 41 percent.
“This may have been the best shooting team I’ve had, and it was nice to be able to spread the court that way, knock down threes and move the ball around,” Odell said. “We shot the ball really well; there wasn’t anybody who didn’t shoot the ball well from three, and even our big guys could all knock it down. The balance we were able to have made us a hard matchup for people. We pushed the ball and kept the pressure on our opponents with our offense. We were scoring almost 90 points a game, so the offensive pressure we created would pressure other teams offensively to keep up with us, and they’d get caught up in the game we wanted to play. We had guys who played interchangeable positions, and this was maybe my smartest team. Because of that, as a coach you could choose to play things different ways, and that group could pick them up.”
The Cougars averaged 86.4 points per game, yet they allowed only 66.7 per game, a margin of nearly 20 points per game. After falling to Dillard (La.) College in the season-opener, Azusa Pacific won its next seven games by an average of over 40 points before edging Lewis-Clark State (Idaho) College, 76-68, in front of a crowd of 313 who showed up for the final game inside the Cougardome.
“That first game, we were not ready to play – it was every man for himself, and the team we played was pretty good,” Leslie said. “Coach Odell was sitting in the front seat of the bus looking angry and upset, and quiet like he would be after a game like that. I apologized and told him that wouldn’t happen again, that as a team, we would always be ready to play. Right after we got back to school, we got together and threw it out there as a team that we would be on the same page from there on out.”
Leslie was the last player to record a double-double in the Cougardome, scoring 19 points with 10 rebounds in the win. Three days later, on Dec. 19, 2000, the Felix Event Center opened with 1,125 on hand to witness a 72-67 victory over The Master’s.
“It was very special, because back in the mid-1990s, the assistant coaches had started telling recruits about the new arena they would be playing in, but this time it had finally rolled around – like any construction project, it took longer and cost more than it was supposed to,” Leslie remembered. “We walked through the building during Anthony Haggins’ recruiting visit, when the floor was still dirt and there was plastic and metal everywhere. I remember going through with him to start casting a vision for what it was going to be like when we started playing in there.”
Staniland scored the Cougars’ first points in the Felix Event Center, and Leslie grabbed the first rebound. Gervin committed the first turnover, only to make up for it less than two minutes later by drilling the first Cougar three-pointer, which gave Azusa Pacific its first lead in the new arena. McIlwain finished with team-highs of 19 points and five assists, scoring seven of his 19 over the final seven minutes to spark his team from seven points down to the eventual five-point win over NAIA No. 23-ranked The Master’s.
“It was a goofy thing to do, but one of the things we did that was great for team-building, was no matter how ordinary it was, we would get excited about being ‘the first one to..’,” said Leslie, who won the opening tip of the Cougars’ first game on the new floor. “Whatever it was, you name it, the idea of being the first in the building to do that was pretty fun. Going from the ‘Dome’, which I loved playing in, to where we ended up was a whole different world for us.”
Gervin scored 32 points the next night in a 17-point win over Albertson (Idaho) College, and the Cougars topped the 100-point mark in a 127-70 win over Atlanta Christian before wrapping up non-conference play with an impressive 13-point win over local NCAA Division II rival Cal State Los Angeles.
In the GSAC opener, Azusa Pacific needed overtime for a road win over Vanguard, using a Michel three-pointer in the final minute of regulation to tie the game before outscoring the Lions 14-5 in the extra period for the conference-opening win. Up next for the Cougars was a talented and confident Biola team that entered the first Felix Event Center installment of the rivalry ranked No. 2 in the NAIA with a perfect 11-0 record and sights set on putting the first dent in Azusa Pacific’s pursuit of a ninth consecutive GSAC championship.
“Bill never mentioned the GSAC streak in recruiting, but as I go to know him later, I realized it was a goal of his that he just never talked about,” Leslie said. “The hype with it had more to do with the assistant coaches and the players. We wanted to win that ninth one, but we didn’t talk about it; our goal was to be the top team in the country, and we wanted to win a national championship. We knew that in order to be the top team in the country, the conference championship was a goal that we simply had to achieve.”
Entering the game at less than full strength with Leslie playing through a painful back injury while backup center Gary Dredge and Haggins watched from the bench in street clothes, NAIA No. 8-ranked Azusa Pacific rallied from 10 points down in the first half and led for most of the second half before going into the final 4:30 tied at 61-61. Biola forward Nate Strong took over down the stretch, scoring all 10 points in a 10-1 run as the Eagles pulled away late to stun a school-record crowd of 2,407 in the first Felix Event Center meeting between arch-rivals who had split 74 all-time meetings entering the contest.
It was a disappointing way to start the rivalry in the new building, and it was especially painful since Biola had also won in its final trip to the Cougardome the previous year. However, two nights later, Bourne and Leslie each posted double-doubles to lead the Cougars back into the win column with an 80-70 win over Point Loma. McIlwain was a perfect four-for-four, all three-pointers, in a 14-point effort off the bench in an 89-81 road win over Westmont, and Azusa Pacific rolled to six more wins through the end of January.
That set up a rematch with Biola, which was still ranked in the top-five nationally despite losing two of its next three after beating Azusa Pacific and losing again just before facing the Cougars again in La Mirada.
The Cougars, finally back to full strength, fell behind by 13 points barely five minutes into the game before clawing to within four points at halftime. Bourne scored on the opening second-half possession, and after the teams traded baskets again in the opening minute, neither team led by more than three points the rest of the way.
The lead changed hands 13 times in the second half, as Bourne pushed Azusa Pacific in front for good with 1:36 to play when he scored to put the Cougars ahead, 73-72. After Gervin hit one-of-two free throws for a 76-74 lead with 15 seconds to play, Biola turned to Strong on its final possession to try to send the game to overtime. With the clock winding down, Strong’s short jumper was blocked by Haggins with the rebound controlled by McIlwain, who hit another free throw with a second left to secure the dramatic 77-74 victory.
“We knew Strong would get the ball, so when I saw him driving I left Thrash because I wasn’t really worried about him catching and shooting,” Haggins said. “Once Strong picked up his dribble, I just tried to jump as high as possible and get a fingertip on it. As it turned out, I was able to get a lot more than I thought I could, and I was even able to keep it inbounds for McIlwain to get it. It’s an incredible feeling that I still remember to this day, to be able to come up big in that moment and secure the win for the team. Because of where the game was, it meant even more, and I couldn’t have asked for that type of game to happen with a better group of guys.”
Weary from the hard-fought win just two nights earlier, Azusa Pacific got out to another slow start at Point Loma, falling behind by 10 at halftime before Haggins scored 16 of his team-high 18 points to lead the Cougars to a 48-point second-half explosion. Another halftime deficit at home against Westmont was erased with a 50-point second half led by Leslie, who scored 14 of his team-high 20 points after halftime of a seven-point win.
“I had learned about the (conference-championship) streak on my recruiting trip with Justin,” Haggins recalled. “He explained the tradition, and I realized it wasn’t just about basketball. It was bigger than that. Back then at the games, the fans were so passionate, and you knew that it meant a lot to all of the schools. There was a lot of pride on the line, and it was hard not to recognize it. You knew there was a bulls-eye on your back, and that’s something our group enjoyed having.”
The streak of first-half deficits continued in a visit to Hope International, but another 48 points in the second half meant the winning streak rolled on as the Cougars improved to 13-1 in GSAC heading into the final two weeks of the regular season. Clinching at least a share of its ninth straight conference title with a 32-point win over Fresno Pacific, Azusa Pacific closed out GSAC play by hitting triple-digits in each of its final three conference games. In the regular-season finale against NAIA No. 7-ranked Christian Heritage (now named San Diego Christian), which featured GSAC Player of the Year Brad Nicholson.
“You knew you wouldn’t be able to just show up and win, because the league was too good for that,” Leslie said. “You had to be prepared to go out and take another team’s best shot. We started seeing that teams who played great against us would just be a shell of what they had been against us in their next game. That really gave us an edge to go out and compete. It wasn’t just good enough to go through and win a game; we would challenge ourselves to do it the right way from start to finish regardless of who was in the game.”
Nicholson poured in 20 of his game-high 26 points in the first half, leading the Hawks to a five-point halftime edge, but Michel answered with four second-half three-pointers in a 19-point outburst while Dredge provided 11 points off the bench, hitting his only three-pointers all year in a 64-point second half.
“That season was probably the most focused team effort I’ve ever been a part of. Roles were not only defined, they were relished. We had two great players coming off the bench for us in McIlwain and Haggins, and they never complained about it one bit because they just wanted to win. Egos were out of the way, and that enabled us to just keep getting better each day. It wasn’t just about winning, it was about how we won. There were some lopsided games where the temptation would have been to let it get sloppy, but we kept our foot on the gas and kept trying to play the right way. Guys would come off the bench and play the same way, so playing that focused was pretty fun,” Leslie said.
The fireworks continued into the GSAC Tournament, where Azusa Pacific tied the program’s longest winning streak with a 93-70 win over Vanguard for its 17th straight victory. The Cougars set the record with a 90-79 win over Westmont, and they finished off the sweep of the conference tournament with a 75-68 victory over none other than Biola in the conference title game. The Cougars led by as many as 16 points in the first half against Biola, but the Eagles stormed back for another entertaining back-and-forth second-half slugfest that featured 10 lead changes and eight ties over the final 12 minutes of play. Azusa Pacific scored its final 12 points of the game from the free throw line, finishing on a 15-6 run in the 75-68 win.
“There’s always pressure when you’re rated highly, but I don’t think that hurt us in any way,” Odell said. “That’s life when you’ve accomplished some of the things we had done. Going into the conference tournament was tough, because we had to beat some very good teams again, but the guys came through in a big way during that tournament.”
The Cougars had trailed for less than five total minutes and never by more than two points during its three games in the GSAC Tournament. When all was said and done, Azusa Pacific had emerged from the NAIA’s best overall conference with an unprecedented 17-1 conference record, winning the league by four games over runner-ups Biola and Christian Heritage. At that time, and to this day, the four-game winning margin for a conference title is the largest in GSAC men’s basketball history.
“I don’t think this team was as explosive as the 1992-93 team offensively, but if you look at the statistics over the year, we held opponents to 66 points while we were scoring 86. This team defended,” Leslie said.
“Our margin of victory was 13 in a very good league, and we relished that challenge. Something else we talked about was competing against what other APU teams had done. We had those conversations about how you go out there and do it like no one else has at APU. We had won eight straight GSAC championships coming into the year, and the pressure mounted each year not to be the team that lost that streak. I certainly didn’t want to, and I was the only senior on this team, so I felt like it was my job to educate these guys about the bull’s-eye we wore around our neck everywhere we went, how we would get everybody’s best shot. We had to make sure that we communicated exactly what we were getting ourselves into, because this was the golden era of the GSAC around that time.”
Ranked No. 3 in the final NAIA Coaches Poll and seeded No. 2 in the NAIA national tournament, Azusa Pacific extended its record winning streak to 20 games with an 82-70 first-round win over Edward Waters (Fla.) College. The next night, Azusa Pacific had to contend with four-time NAIA champion Oklahoma City University, which had started the year 16-1 but was entering the tournament as a dangerous unseeded team. Oklahoma City rolled past No. 15-seeded Xavier (La.), 91-69, in its first-round matchup, but the Stars ran into a hot-shooting Azusa Pacific team in the second round. The Cougars hit 12-of-24 three-pointers, and Gervin scored 16 of his game-high 23 points in the first half to lead the confident Cougars to a commanding 52-27 halftime edge and, eventually, a resounding 94-54 final.
“In that first game against Edward Waters, we were never able to get comfortable, and that definitely got our attention,” Leslie said. “Against Oklahoma City, this was a team that had been ranked No. 1 in the nation for a long stretch that nobody wanted to play because their talent level was through the roof. They were more talented than we were, but we played so well together that game, and defensively it was our finest performance all year. They just laid down and quit, because we flustered everything they wanted to do.”
Up next was a national-tournament rematch with 10th-seeded Faulkner (Ala.) University, which had surprised many by producing a first-round upset of Azusa Pacific on its way to a quarterfinals appearance in 2000. Behind 24 points and 11 rebounds from Faulkner’s lanky 6-foot-6 sophomore forward Paul Little, the Eagles used a 16-5 run that stretched across both halves to take the lead for good.
Faulkner kept the Cougars at bay throughout the second half, maintaining a lead between five and 10 points for over 10 minutes of the second half until a Leslie three-pointer pulled the Cougars within four, 69-65, with 5:46 to play. However, Faulkner had an answer for every Cougar score the rest of the way, with Gervin’s two-pointer with 49 seconds left cutting the lead to 76-73 before the Eagles sealed Azusa Pacific’s fate with three free throws down the stretch.
“Faulkner wasn’t a team that was being thought as one of the powers going into that tournament, and they were motivated to play us,” Leslie said. “That was probably the first time we weren’t able to go out there and get a look that we wanted, because they were dictating where we got our shots from. I remember late in the game when we got close, and it seemed like the last minute lasted a half-hour as I kept re-thinking through the game and all the opportunities we missed. You can call me biased, but I remember after getting away from it a little bit more just well Faulkner played that game. We set the standard for ourselves very high all year, and they played really well to beat us. They won their next two games pretty convincingly to win the national title, but that was the national title game to us. It took me a long time to get over that game, not until I came to that conclusion of how great they played to beat us.”
Faulkner went on to win the NAIA championship, and other than a two-point first-round win, it didn’t have a closer game than its quarterfinal upset of the Cougars. Azusa Pacific’s GSAC rival Christian Heritage, which the Cougars beat by an average of 19 points during the regular season, knocked off the tournament’s No. 1-seed Transylvania (Ky.) in the second round and advanced to the NAIA semifinals before falling to eventual national runner-up Science & Arts (Okla.).
“We’d been recognized as one of those teams that was always around, along with Faulkner, Oklahoma City, Georgetown, and we were included in that set of teams,” Odell said. “With the success of the GSAC the previous few years, we were representing a conference that was a very good conference. This one was a fun year, and the guys on the team were great guys, so the disappointment of losing was a little bit tougher because they were such great guys and you just wanted it to keep going for them.”