LA MIRADA, Calif. – Ah, yes, there’s no place like … the road?
For the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Azusa Pacific that seems to be the case. The Cougars picked up their fifth impressive win on the GSAC road this season and more importantly took over sole possession of first place in the conference after downing arch-rival Biola, 93-87, before 2,542 people, the largest crowd ever to watch a basketball game in Biola’s Chase Gymnasium.
Azusa Pacific rode the hot hand of sophomore guard Mike Hornbuckle, used a 12-2 run with less than 10 minutes left in the game to open up a 73-62 advantage, and then held the Eagles at bay down the stretch to pick up its third straight win over Biola and its seventh in the past 9 meetings.
Hornbuckle, who had been mired in a 6-game shooting slump in which had scored just 26 points while shooting 39% from the floor, broke of out the doldrums in a mighty fashion tonight by draining a season-high 5-of-6 3-point shots to finish with 17 points. He buried back-to-back bombs during the game-deciding run, including a corner trey that seemingly was a punch to the collective Biola stomach.
“I realized I hadn’t been helping the team lately,” said Hornbuckle, who was the Cougars’ leading scorer over the final month of last year but has battled to find similar consistency this season. “In games like this, shooters tend to get too pumped up, play the game too fast, and not make shots. But I worked hard this week on my shot and it paid off. I made a couple in the first half and the team got me involved in the offense in the second half.”
Biola rolled out to a 23-15 lead to open the game, but behind Demario Butler, who scored 13 of his team-high 21 points in the first half, Azusa Pacific rallied to assume a 39-38 lead at halftime.
The teams traded leaded 8 times in the first 7 minutes of the second half and the Cougars appeared to have gained the emotional edge after Butler’s monster ally-oop dunk put Azusa Pacific up 56-54. However, Butler was slapped with a technical for taunting Biola’s Garren Cunningham, the victim of Butler’s acrobatic slam. The Eagles converted both free throws to tie the game for the eighth time, but they were unable to re-take the lead on the same possession. At that point, Hornbuckle took over, nailing his third trey of the game, his first of the second half, to put Azusa Pacific up for good at 59-56 with 13:09 left in the game.
“I would say this was one of Mike’s better weeks of practice in terms of working really hard and getting game-like shots,” said Cougar coach Bill Odell. “Biola went to a zone in the second half so we ran plays for Mike, and he came through.”
Brice Prather registered his third straight quality effort, posting a season-high 16 points on 7-for-8 shooting from his spot on the block.”
“I’m trying to establish a leadership role,” said Prather, “and I know if can get my game going early and make shots, then the opposing defense will have to double-down, and that opens up shots for us on the perimeter.”
The game was extremely well-played and matched all expectations that are typical of this extremely emotional rivalry. Both teams shot over 50% from the floor and combined to commit a mere 17 turnovers. And though the Eagles trailed by 13 with 7 minutes to go, they nonetheless rallied behind the capacity crowd of Biola students, who inexplicably were no-shows at the game in Azusa back in November.
Biola came back to 75-71 with more than 4 minutes still to play. However, the Eagles didn’t help themselves by missing 8 second-half free throws, and the officials weren’t too kind to them either. With the Cougars clinging to a 5-point lead late in the game, Hornbuckle was given a block of a Brandon Warner lay-up though Hornbuckle readily admits he never touched the ball.
“I fouled Warner,” said Hornbuckle in matter of fact tone. “(Paul) Guerrero had just hit a 3 in my face on their previous possession, and I knew I had to do something. I came across the baseline and went up on his shot. I got my arm on his arm.”
Tristan King finished had 13 points and snapped an 0-for-20 drought at the arch by making 2 treys, including a key one from the left wing after Biola had rallied to within 4 points.
Scott Zea, the Cougars’ third-leading scorer returned to action after missing the past 5 games with an ankle sprain, and tallied 6 points, including 2 on a put-back that put Azusa Pacific up by 11.
Azusa Pacific is now 7-0 on the road this season, beating foes on their home court by an average of 13 points per win while shooting 49% from the floor. At the Felix Event Center, where the Cougars are 9-3 this season, Azusa Pacific is shooting just 44% over the past 3 games.
“People seem to hate Azusa Pacific and this team feeds off opposing crowds,” explained Hornbuckle.
However, Odell is less than thrilled with the Cougars’ Jekyll and Hyde display.
“We have to be a little more self-motivational,” said Odell, “and not rely on away crowds to get after us and get us going. We have to play better at home.”
With the win Azusa Pacific improves to 18-3 overall, 9-2 in the GSAC. With San Diego Christian’s loss at Vanguard, the Cougars sit atop the GSAC standings alone, 1 game ahead of San Diego Christian and Westmont. The Warriors make their annual visit to Azusa Tuesday evening with an eye on moving into a first-place tie with the Cougars.
Biola, which was paced by Spencer Foster's game-high 29 points, falls to 14-7 overall, 6-5 in the GSAC.