IRVINE, Calif. – Of his 329 wins in 12 seasons at Azusa Pacific, Cougar Coach Bill Odell has probably had victories more significant than tonight’s; but in all those years and among all those wins he has never had a victory that celebrated a team’s character more than tonight’s 94-84 Azusa Pacific win over the NAIA’s No. 4-ranked Concordia before a sellout crowd of over 1,500 in the CU Arena.
Set against the backdrop of Tuesday’s disheartening loss at Biola in which Azusa Pacific blew a 25-point lead, the Cougars reached deep within themselves to rebound from the disappointment and beat Concordia in a battle for sole possession of first place in the GSAC.
The victory didn’t come easy and the 10-point margin of victory belies the war that the 2 top 5-ranked teams waged for 39 minutes of the game. In end, the Cougars made their free throws down the stretch – 10 straight in the final 3 minutes – while Concordia struggled, going 1-for-7 from the floor and 2-for-4 at the line.
“We know we messed up on Tuesday,” said Odell, “so this victory is huge, and it shows the character of the guys. I’m ecstatic with how the guys responded to the pressure of the situation and in front of such a large crowd.”
No one’s character was more on than line than 2-time All-GSAC guard Caleb Gervin, who was coming off his worst game of the season, a 2-for-9, 10-point showing at Biola. In response, Gervin bounced back in grand fashion and tore apart Concordia for a career-high 34 points, canning an impressive 13-of-16 shots, including a trio of 3s, while making all 5 of his free throw attempts.
“The game came down to Caleb’s veteran play and the fact that we’ve played in a lot of big games over the past 3 years,” said Cougar forward Brett Michel, who had 14 points, including 2 that came off free throws that give the Cougars a 6-point lead with 1:19 left in the game.
Indeed, Gervin was clutch when it was most necessary. He quieted a 15-3 Concordia run toward the end of the first half by nailing a 50-foot running heave at the buzzer to give Azusa Pacific a 44-40 halftime lead. He then buried a trey from the wing to snap another Concordia run and give the Cougars a 59-54 cushion with 12:45 remaining in the game. Finally, he iced the game with a short jumper high off the glass that put Azusa Pacific up an insurmountable 88-82 with 59 seconds left in the game.
“This just shows our character,” said Gervin. “We wanted to bounce back from Biola, and everyone played a big part in this win. I don’t think I did anything different or special, I just wanted to make sure we got a ‘W’ tonight.”
Many eyes were on Azusa Pacific at the start of the game, wondering what kind of affect the Biola loss would have on the Cougars, and in the early going it appeared the sting still lingered. Concordia rolled out to an 11-2 lead just 5 minutes into the contest, making 5-of-8 shots while forcing a trio of Cougar turnovers. However, the CU Arena shot clock malfunctioned and play was stopped for nearly 10 minutes while game administrators attempted to fix it.
“One of my assistants asked if the break helped or hurt us,” said Odell, “and at the time I wasn’t sure of the answer. I didn’t like the fact that as time stood still reality was staring us in the face with an 11-2 hole.”
Evidently, though, the lengthy break benefited the Cougars, who responded with an 11-4 run when play resumed to pull to within 2 at 15-13 following the Gervin 3-pointer. Concordia bumped the lead back to 6 at 21-15 before the Cougars caught a raging fire.
Sparked by a Ladrick Simon steal and subsequent dunk, Azusa Pacific went on a 23-4 blitz in which 5 different Cougars scored led by freshman Lance Soderberg’s 6 points. By the time Concordia was able to catch its balance it realized that its 21-15 lead had turned into a 38-25 deficit with 4 minutes left in the half.
“We needed that break with the shot clock,” added Michel. “I was a little winded at the start of the game, and resting for those minutes allowed me to relax. I think it helped all of us relax and get our legs.”
Back-to-back Ed Fontaine highlight-reel dunks stopped the Concordia bleeding and got the Eagles back into the game with the aforementioned 15-3 run.
The second half contained the type of play expected in a game that matches a pair of nationally-ranked teams. Azusa Pacific held the lead for much of the half, leading by as much as 7 at one point, but for the most part holding only a 2- or 4-point advantage for the first 13 minutes of the second half. Concordia finally caught the Cougars at 70-70 on a Fontaine jumper but Azusa Pacific immediately answered, again taking the lead and control of play. It wasn’t until senior guard Rashaun Thomas drained a 3 from the top of the key that Concordia assumed its first lead since the 9-minute mark of the first half, going up 76-74 with 6:18 left in the game.
Azusa Pacific answered again when Jeff Staniland dropped in a baseline jumper and was fouled by Concordia’s Chris Victor. Staniland converted the conventional 3-point play to give Azusa Pacific a 77-76 lead. Eagle guard Jeremy Groth answered with a trey from the wing to give Concordia a 79-77 lead with 4:17 left. It would be the Eagles’ final advantage of the game.
“The only thing that came to my mind at that point was ‘composure,’” said Gervin. “I looked and saw they were up by 2 but knowing the time left in the game and having been in these situations before, I know you don’t panic. You just continue to execute and go with the game plan. Coach did a good job leading us, and we trust him.”
Junior guard Ryan Dillon, who had just missed a jumper and followed that with a crucial turnover, made amends by burying a 3-pointer from the wing to give Azusa Pacific the lead for good at 80-79 with 3:50 left in the game. Groth then missed back-to-back 3s and Fontaine turned the ball over. It was at that point Azusa Pacific begin to win the game at the line, converting free throw after free throw, making 10 straight at the end of the game, 17-of-19 in the second half, and 23-of-28 for the game.
Staniland finished with 13 points and was a perfect 7-for-7 at the line, which included 6 at the charity stripe in the final3 minutes of play. Soderberg played perhaps his finest game as a Cougar, finishing with 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting. Danny Rosales tallied 9 points and a team-high 8 rebounds.
As they did in their first meeting with Concordia back on Jan. 11 when they handed the then No. 1-ranked Eagles their first loss of the season, the Cougars shot very well again from the floor, making 33-of-58 (.569) shots.
Concordia had 5 players in double-figure scoring, led by Fontaine’s 19 points. Tanner Luster registered a double-double with 15 points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
With the victory the No. 5-ranked Azusa Pacific hands Concordia its first loss at home this season, snapping the Eagles’ 11-game home court winning streak. Additionally, Azusa Pacific resumes its spot all alone at the top of the GSAC perch, improving to 22-4 overall, 14-2 in the GSAC. Concordia falls to 24-3 overall, 12-3 in the GSAC.