AZUSA, Calif. – Oh those 20-point comebacks.
In the lore of this rivalry, both Azusa Pacific and Biola spin the legendary tales of incredible comebacks from the near depths of defeat. Tonight, however, was not to be one of those stories, and all because of a player who 24 hours ago had no understanding of the Azusa Pacific-Biola rivalry.
Tristan King buried a 3-pointer from the left corner with 3:18 left in the game and then followed with a bucket in the key 30 seconds later to propel the NAIA’s top-ranked Azusa Pacific to a 92-83 victory over No. 21 Biola in both team’s GSAC opener before 2,522 at the Felix Event Center Tuesday evening.
Azusa Pacific, which led wire-to-wire, held a double-digit lead for much of the game, including 20-point cushions in both halves. However, after trailing 54-34 with just over 14 minutes to play, Biola rallied behind the inside-outside play of Brandon Warner and Solomon Mercado and cut the deficit to just 7 at 70-63.
Enter King, unfazed by the intensity of the atmosphere and the moment, who calmly drained a trey, his third of the game, to put Azusa Pacific back up by 10 and for all intents and purposes seal the victory for Azusa Pacific, its 21st in the past 29 meetings with the arch-rival Eagles.
“Oh, that definitely felt good,” said King, an 2005 all-state performer at San Jose City College who finished with 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting in 22 minutes off the bench. “It got us back into a rhythm to finish off the game.”
Azusa Pacific immediately zipped back out to a 16-point lead with 78 seconds left to put the finishing touches on a key victory.
“It’s been hard for Tristan because he has been a starter his whole life,” said Cougar coach Bill Odell who moved to within one victory of collegiate career win No. 400. “This has been a transition for him, understanding how to play coming off the bench, but tonight he was focused and into the game. And he showed what kind of shooter he is.”
The Cougars were quite impressive through the first 25 minutes of play, manhandling Biola from the opening tip. Azusa Pacific scored the game’s first 6 points and then used a 15-3 run to blow open the game and assume a 36-15 lead following a Josh Reisman jumper with 4 minutes left in the first half.
A balanced attack put Azusa Pacific up 44-26 at halftime, and a 7-0 run, capped by a Demario Butler jumper, pushed the lead back to 20 at 54-34 with 15 minutes remaining.
“I was pretty pleased with our first half,” said Odell. “We made some mistakes, but we played hard and we played together. We began to settle for the 3-pointer though in the second half and gave ground to them when they went big and began to muscle us.”
Warner and Mercado combined for 51 points with Warner tallying a game-high 29, mostly on his inside play, including 18 in the final 17 minutes of play. Meanwhile, Mercado opted to break down the Cougar defense off the dribble and dropped in 12 of his 22 points in the final 13 minutes.
“We should have done a better job with Warner and Mercado,” said Odell. “They began to pound it and some shots went down.”
Butler led Azusa Pacific with 23 points, while All-American Lance Soderberg added 11 points and a game-high 9 rebounds.
“I heard about this rivalry when I was being recruited,” said Butler, who was a junior college All-American last year at Arizona Western. “This was a big game, but really it wasn’t. You have to play hard in every game, and I just tried to treat it like another game.”
Reisman added 15 points and Scott Zea chipped in 12, including 8 in the first half when he help jettison the Cougar offense.
The 175 combined points scored are the most in this storied rivalry since 1995 when Azusa Pacific belted Biola, 105-73.
With the victory, the Cougars’ sixth in the past 8 meetings with Biola, Azusa Pacific improves to 4-1 overall, 1-0 in the GSAC while Biola falls to 2-2 and 0-1.