SAN DIEGO, Calif. – Trailing by 11 with less than 11 minutes left in the game, the NAIA’s No. 3-ranked Azusa Pacific kept its composure. Of course a 15-0 blitz in less than 4 minutes goes a long way too in calming nerves. Nonetheless, a steely set of Cougars successfully managed the minefield known as Golden Gymnasium and rallied to beat Point Loma Nazarene, 78-74, in a Golden State Athletic Conference game Saturday night.
“This was ‘how-much-heart-do-you-have’ kind of game,” said Azusa Pacific coach Bill Odell. “Point Loma played very well and was on its game. But I think a history of playing good competition and having some new players who have played at a high level of competition really helped us tonight. We’ve been here before, and it showed.”
Senior point guards Josh Reisman and Kasey Myers teamed for 20 points in the second half, including 15 in the final 10 minutes to lead Azusa Pacific back from a 53-42 hole and preserve its winning streak, which stretches to 15 straight now after tonight’s victory.
“I think for the first time this season I had both Josh and Kasey on the floor at the same time,” said Odell. “I wanted to make something happen defensively and they had the quickness to help us slow them on the perimeter. They were pretty composed. Josh did a great job defensively down the stretch, and for Kasey, this is second game lately that he has hit some big 3-pointers.”
Myers spurred the comeback by knocking down the first 2 critical treys. The Cougars followed with 12 more points to turn an 11-point deficit into a 57-53 advantage following a Ralph Miley lay-up with 7:30 left in the game. Still the Cougars need more dramatics. Point Loma knotted the game at 60 on a Casey Ortiz jumper with under 5 minutes to play. However, Myers, who entered the game with just 8 3-point field goals on the season, banged home another bomb to give Azusa Pacific a 63-60 lead. After the Sea Lions again tied the game at 63, Reisman then scored 8 points in the final 4 minutes, including 4 straight to give the Cougars a 67-63 lead before burying a 3-pointer with 73 seconds left to push the Azusa Pacific lead to 72-67.
Though he struggled from the floor, missing 12-of-18 shots, All-American Lance Soderberg played like wily veteran, recording team-highs of 18 points, 8 rebounds and 3 assists. He was a perfect 6-for-6 from the line, making 2 with 12 seconds left to give Azusa Pacific an insurmountable 7-point advantage.
“There were pressure times, and Lance executed really well,” said Odell. “(Point Loma’s Tim) Kruge is a load, but Lance hung in there with him and comes up with a huge interception on a lob.”
Reisman finished with 13 points while fellow senior < b>Colton Cornfoot b> added 11 points, including 6 straight during the second-half 15-0 run that turned the game in Azusa Pacific’s favor. Junior Demario Butler had 15 points, including 11 in the first half to keep the Cougars in the game, trailing by just 1 at 35-34 at halftime.
Azusa Pacific has now won 31 of the past 33 meetings with Point Loma Nazarene, but that doesn’t mean the Cougars have cruised, particularly in Golden Gym. Last year, the Cougars dropped a decision at Point Loma and 5 of the past 6 meetings played in Golden Gym have been decided by 5 or less points.
“This is a different place to play for us,” said Odell. “And tonight they had a great crowd, in fact the best crowd I’ve ever seen at Point Loma. And they were loud.”
The Cougars are still somewhat depleted and played without the services of 6-foot-7 frontline men Brice Prather and Scott Zea, and it showed. The Sea Lions out-rebounded Azusa Pacific 40-36. the Cougars made up for it though at the line and with its reserves. The Cougars out-scored Point Loma by 11 points at the free throw line.
Point Loma has suffered through its share of injuries and is missing 3 players (just tonight, the Sea Lions welcomed back center Tim Kruge, who had missed the previous 4 games with family-related issues). As a result, he Sea Lion bench recorded just 3 points, all on free throws, while the Cougar reserves tallied 13.
With the victory Azusa Pacific improves to 16-1 on the season for its second-best start in program history (the 1969 Cougars were 18-1) and moves to 7-0 in the GSAC, maintaining a 1-game lead over San Diego Christian, a 10-point winner over Biola tonight. Point Loma Nazarene falls to 7-6 overall, 2-4 in the GSAC.
Azusa Pacific hosts San Diego Christian in a battle for first place in the GSAC Tuesday (Jan 17) in the Felix Event Center at 7:30 p.m.