AZUSA, Calif. –- Chris Victor’s lay-up with 12 seconds left not only exorcised a host of demons but it also gave the NAIA’s No. 8-ranked Concordia’s something much more -- the championship of the Golden State Athletic Conference Tournament as the Eagles, on the strength of Victor’s efforts, held on to defeat No. 5 Azusa Pacific, 69-67, in the conference postseason tournament title game Tuesday evening.
Concordia, which had lost a pair of heart-breaking regular-season games to Azusa Pacific, nearly suffered a similar fate, allowing a 14-point second-half lead to completely evaporate. Though Concordia controlled play the entire night, Azusa Pacific, nonetheless, rallied back into play and took the lead just once, but it was with 23 seconds left when Brett Michel drained a corner trey to give Azusa Pacific a 67-66 advantage.
Following an Eagle time-out to set up a play, Victor took the ball on top of the key, used a Tanner Luster screen, and drove the baseline, producing a sideways leaning lay-up to drop in the game-winning bucket.
“He’s our big-time player,” said Concordia Coach Ken Ammann, a former Azusa Pacific assistant who picked a fine time to collect his first-ever victory over his former employer and mentor Cougar coach Bill Odell. “Time and time again this season, he has come up with clutch plays in key situations.”
Victor finished with a game-high 18 points, including 5 in the final 4 minutes of the game. Rashaun Thomas, who carried Concordia in the early going, also tossed in 18 points.
Behind Thomas’ 14 first-half points, Concordia raced out to a 21-9 lead less than 7 minutes into the game. Azusa Pacific rallied back to tie the score at 26-26 on a Ladrick Simon jumper, but Concordia finished off the half with a 14-5 run to take a 40-31 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Victor nailed a 3-pointer to open the second half and when Ed Fontaine scored on a lay-up, Concordia found itself up 45-31.
Azusa Pacific, which struggled all night from the floor, whittled the deficit down to 3 at 57-54 following a Ryan Dillon trey, but Concordia was able to keep Azusa Pacific at bay. The Cougars used a mini 8-2 blitz capped by Michel’s bucket to get its only lead of the game, setting up Victor’s heroics.
“This victory means a lot to the guys,” said Ammann. “We haven’t had to come back for any victories this year until the past 2 game, and to beat Azusa Pacific is a great momentum builder heading east.”
“East” is Kansas City where both Concordia and Azusa Pacific travel next week for the NAIA Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament (March 26 – April 1).
“This was a good learning lesson for us,” said Odell. “This is the way the games will be played and officiated at the NAIA Tournament. We didn’t do the little things tonight, and we have to learn from this and make sure we do the them in Kansas City, like rebounding and making open shots.”
Indeed Azusa Pacific struggled from the floor. In their 2 double-digit regular-season victories over Concordia, the Cougars shot a combined 58% from the floor. Tonight, they managed to convert just 45% of their shots, missing several lay-ups and 15 attempts from the 3-point arc.
“We played better defense tonight than in the 2 previous games with them,” said Ammann, “and it was helpful that their shots weren’t falling.”
GSAC Player of the Year Caleb Gervin, who had a career-high 34 points in his last outing vs. Concordia, led Azusa Pacific with 17 but he was just 7-for-15 from the floor and missed a potential game-winning 12-foot jumper in the key with 3 seconds left.
“I’d take that shot again,” said Gervin. “I had a good look at it but I was just short.”
All-GSAC guard Jeff Staniland added 12 points, 3 of which came off a conventional 3-point play with 2:14 left that got the Cougars to within 2 at 64-62. Freshman Lance Soderberg finished with 11 points.
With the victory, Concordia’s first over Azusa Pacific since 1996 snapping a 15-game losing streak to the Cougars, the Eagles improve to 31-4, while Azusa Pacific heads into the NAIA Tournament with a 27-6 mark.