SANTA CLARITA, Calif. – It was clear that if The Master’s was going to get back into this game, it had to put the stops on Demario Butler and Lance Soderberg. So the Mustangs did. However, no one mentioned Kasey Myers, and why would they? The diminutive senior guard hadn’t made a basket in 2 games and 44 minutes of play.
And so as The Master’s stood on the threshold of a near comeback from a 14-point deficit in just 10 minutes of play, a wide-open Myers calmly buried a 20-foot jumper from the right wing, his only basket of the night, a 3-pointer that lifted the NAIA’s No. 3-ranked Azusa Pacific to an 85-80 Golden State Athletic Conference victory over The Master’s.
Down 62-48 with just over 12 minutes left in the game, The Master’s seemed poised to steal a victory after rallying to within one at 80-79 with 2 minutes left in regulation. It was the closest the Mustangs had been since the game’s opening tip. Myers, the most unsuspecting of all heroes, found himself nearly nude as Mike Hornbuckle riffled a pass from the top of the arc, and Myers shot hit nothing but net to break TMC’s collective heart and give the Cougars an insurmountable 83-79 lead with 1:39 remaining.
“I said to myself, ‘don’t be afraid, just shoot it,’” said Myers, who had scored just 8 points in the previous 3 games combined missing all 4 3-point shots in that span. “My job isn’t to score, but I have to be ready to do that. I stepped into the shot, and it felt good as soon as it left my hand.”
The Master’s made a free throw and then missed a game-tying trey with 44 seconds left. At the other end as the Cougars attempted to wind the shot clock down as low as they could, Soderberg came up with a crucial offensive rebound and put-back to clinch the Cougars’ fourth straight win at Bross Gym.
“I was thinking about calling a timeout before Kasey’s shot,” said Azusa Pacific coach Bill Odell, “but we had been moving the ball well and running our offense in previous possessions. We just hadn’t been getting the desired results until Kasey’s shot fell.”
Led by Butler and Soderberg, the Cougars were playing their best basketball of the season through the first 30 minutes of the game. Azusa Pacific led 8-0 at the start and held a 9-point advantage of 42-33 at halftime. The Cougars made 16 of their first 31 shots and were in control throughout much of the evening. Every time, the Mustangs seemingly made a big shot to hopefully jumpstart a staggering offense, the Cougars came right back with a key basket that kept TMC at bay.
Butler was sterling in his effort, tallying team highs of 23 points and 4 assists while Soderberg added 19 points and a game-high 13 rebounds. However, down the stretch, The Master’s put its defensive focus on them forcing other Cougars had to step up. Tristan King came off the bench to score 5 of his 7 points in the final 4 minutes of play, converting a conventional 3-point play with 2:50 left to put the Cougars up 80-75.
Fellow reserve Josh Reisman added 11 points, including 2 on one of his several gut-driving lay-ups that gave Azusa Pacific its biggest lead of the game at 62-48 with 12:30 remaining.
Though the 80 points surrendered may not indicate it, the Cougars were masterful on defense. Mustangs Ryan Reed and Giovanni St. Amant came into the contest averaging 40 points together. However, Hornbuckle, Butler and King teamed to hold the duo to just 6-for-26 shooting (23%), including 0-for-10 from the 3-point arc. They finished with 25 points, 13 of which came at the free throw line over the final 10 minutes of play.
“The guys really did a good job defensively,” said Odell. “I thought that as the game wore on, The Master’s was getting frustrated by our defensive play.”
Azusa Pacific, which came into the game next-to-last in the GSAC in free throw shooting (.610), helped itself by canning 17-of-22 from the charity stripe. Meanwhile, The Master’s which is fifth in the NAIA in free throw shooting, missed 7 free throws over the final 9 minutes of play, including 3 straight at one crucial point.
“This is the kind of game that helps us get better at the little things,” said Soderberg. “It reminds us of little things that have to be done in order to close out games, and it gives us confidence that we can win other tight games later in the season.”
Azusa Pacific has now won 11 straight for its longest winning streak since taking 14 in a row during the 2001 campaign. The Cougars improve to 12-1 overall, 3-0 in the GSAC. The Master’s, which was paced by Caleb Adcock’s game-high 24 points, falls to 6-5 overall, 1-1 in the GSAC.