SANTA CLARITA, Calif. – Azusa Pacific left them shaking their heads again and muttering something about luck, but the Cougars’ Jeff Staniland would hear nothing of it.
For the fourth time this season, Azusa Pacific needed a second-half rally and this time some clutch shooting down the stretch to pull out a victory on the GSAC road, claiming a 66-63 win against an undermanned The Master’s College. Against the backdrop of a 71-65 win at Fresno Pacific, a 77-63 verdict at California Baptist, a 64-63 victory at Point Loma Nazarene, the game with The Master’s followed a near identical script. It just took the Cougars a little longer to get the second-half lead this time.
“You’re not lucky when you win 4 games like that,” said Staniland in response to the accusation that the Cougars were on a wave of good fortune. “We know what it takes to win. Sure we don’t like finding ourselves down and having to come back, but when you do it time and again it isn’t about luck. This team simply knows how to win when its back is to the wall.”
After staking itself to an 11-5 lead just over 3 minutes into the game, Azusa Pacific went dead in the water as The Master’s utilized its large and athletic frontline to outscore the Cougars 35-21 over the final 16 minutes of the of half, taking a 40-32 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Seemingly undeterred by the large halftime deficit, the Cougars figured they just put it all together and take over the second half, much like they did in the victories at Fresno Pacific and California Baptist. That wasn’t the case though, as the Mustangs refused to roll over under Azusa Pacific’s applied pressure. Trailing by as much as 11 at different points in the second half, Azusa Pacific twice cut the lead to 7 only to see The Master’s answer each time. In fact, Joe Deister’s nothing-but-net trey from the top of the key with 14 minutes left in the game gave The Master’s a 50-40 cushion.
“I have to admit I was getting a little nervous at that point,” said Staniland, who has played in more GSAC games than anyone in history and therefore has a unique understanding of what competition is like in one of the NAIA’s premier basketball conferences. “They kept answering us and I was beginning to wonder if we’d pull it off.”
Azusa Pacific put together a mini 8-3 run in which 4 straight points by Caleb Gervin pulled the Cougars to within 5 at 53-48 with 9:29 left. They then got the break they absolutely needed to take control of the game. Cougar reserve Nate Pratt induced Mustang center Caleb Adcock, who had been tearing Azusa Pacific apart on the inside, into an offensive foul and his fourth of the game.
“I’m not sure he deserved the call,” said Pratt, “but I did my best acting in hope that the officials would call something, and they did.”
With Adcock now on the bench, the Cougars begin to own the inside, limiting the Mustangs to just 1 shot while getting offensive rebounds of their own. A Gervin trey from the top of the key pulled the Cougars to within 2 and Pratt followed with one of those much-needed put-backs to tie the game at 53-53 for the first time since it was knotted at 24 with 7 minutes left in the first half.
Adcock was forced to return earlier than desired but order was restored for The Master’s, albeit briefly, nailing its next 2 shots to go up 57-53 with 5:27 left. But the Cougars were now in “familiar territory” and answered again. Staniland dropped in a lay-up in traffic and Gervin followed with another trey from the wing to give Azusa Pacific a 58-57 lead with 4:44 left, the Cougars’ first advantage since midway through the first half.
“Once Nate tied the game on his put-back, I knew we’d be okay,” said Staniland. “We know how to play in those kind of situations. It was just a matter of getting even with them.”
The 2 teams traded leads 6 more times in the final 3-and-a-half minutes. It wasn’t until Bret Michel canned 2 free throws with 49 seconds left, and then grabbed his game-high ninth rebound on a missed Deister jumper in the key with 19 seconds left that the Cougars could finally put their hands around a victory. Michel made 2 more free throws with 11 seconds left, and when Mustang Micah McKinney air-balled a 3-point shot from the top of the key, Azusa Pacific found itself with another one of those “lucky” wins.
“I’m telling you, it’s hard to play on the road in this conference,” Staniland added, “and especially at The Master’s. But Caleb, Brett and myself have been around a long time and we’ve been through many battles like this. We know what it takes to get it done.”
Azusa Pacific made 12-of-13 free throws in the second half, and out-rebounded The Master’s, 40-36, including an important 5-1 count during Adcock’s absence in the second-half. Gervin led the Cougars with 21 points and was 2-for-3 from the 3-point arc, both of which he made in the final 5 minutes of the game. Michel finished with 14 points. Staniland had 10 points, and like Michel, was a perfect 6-for-6 at the line.
Adcock led The Master’s with a game-high 24 points on 11-for-15 shooting in just 30 minutes of play, picking up the slack for starters Lavar Simons and Keron Wilkerson, both of whom suffered season-ending injuries in the past 2 weeks.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 20-3 and posts its 11th straight 20-win season, a first in program history. Additionally the Cougars are now 12-1 in the GSAC and combined with Concordia’s upset loss at Westmont tonight, Azusa Pacific assumes sole possession of first place in the GSAC, a game ahead of Concordia and 2 ahead of Westmont. The Cougars will have to continue their mastery of the GSAC road if they intend to stay atop of the conference. They still have to pay visits to Concordia, Westmont and arch-rival Biola in the coming weeks.