With the NAIA’s No. 2-ranked Azusa Pacific clinging to a 62-59 lead, an uncontested Butler calmly nailed his lone 3-point bucket of the night, and only his fourth of the season, with less than 3 seconds left on the shot clock and only 14 seconds remaining in the game. It capped a roller-coaster night for the Cougars, who for the second straight game struggled to put away its opponent.
“We came out of the time-out wanting Demario to create something by penetrating,” said Cougar coach Bill Odell, who admitted he had different ideas in his head than having Butler launch a three. “I guess that’s creating, shooting a 3.”
Butler, who came in averaging 20 points a game in GSAC play, was held to 14 tonight and only 6 in the second half, making the first basket of the second half, a dunk off a stolen pass, and the last of the game, a game-clinching 3.
“I was trying to create,” said Butler of his last shot, “but they were playing off of me. So I just gave a little wobble of my head and put up the shot. It felt good as soon as I let it go. I probably shot 70 of those earlier today in shoot-around.”
Azusa Pacific struggled to get control of the game. In fact, Cal Baptist appeared to be the nationally-ranked team in the first half. The Lancers kept Azusa Pacific off-balance, forcing the Cougars to clank 12 of their first 16 shots while the Lancers rode the hot hand of Pete Rajniak, who drained 8 of his first 9 shots, including a pair of treys, to register 18 of his game-high 24 points in the first half.
Rajniak scored 14 of the Lancers’ first 18 points and propelled CBU to several 4-point leads in the first half, including a 31-27 advantage following another Rajniak jumper with 2:36 left. However, the Cougars closed the half on a 5-0 run to take a 32-31 halftime lead that it would not relinquish the rest of the game.
Tristan King scored 10 of his 12 points in the second half and spearheaded a Cougar push that gave Azusa pacific a 58-46 lead with just over 6 minutes left in the game. However, the Lancers made 5 straight shots and 6 of its last 7 of the game to pull to within 3 at 62-59 with 49 seconds left following a Junior Denson jumper.
The rest was up to Butler, who in addition to his game-clinching bomb, took over the defensive assignment of Rajniak in the second half, forcing the Luxembourg native to turn the ball over on CBU’s first possession of the second half and making him miss as many shots in the first 2 minutes of the second half as he did in all the first half.
“We put Demario on Rajniak in the second half,” said Odell, “and we did a better job of expanding the court and pressuring him.”
The Cougars, who were playing without 6-foot-7 big men Brice Prather (academics) and Scott Zea (injury), were held to a GSAC-low 65 points and their second lowest offensive output of the season (they tallied just 61 vs. Montana State-Northern).
“We had a lot of guys playing out of position and the execution just wasn’t sharp,” said Odell. “We were small.”
All-American Lance Soderberg was a giant among boys in the first half, scoring 16 of his team-high 20 points.
“Lance carried us in the first half,” said Odell, “and Tristan had a very good second half for us.”
With the victory, Azusa Pacific pushes its winning streak to 14 straight and improves to 15-1 on the season, the second-best start in program history (the 1969 Cougars won 18 of their first 19 games), and is now 6-0 in the GSAC. Cal Baptist falls to 7-6 overall, 2-3 in the GSAC.