As his team precariously clung to a 1-point lead with just 4 seconds left on the shot clock and only 21 seconds left in the game, Butler skied above the rim to catch a baseline inbounds pass with one hand and in the same motion drop the ball into the net for a spectacular basket that lifted the NAIA’s No. 6-ranked Azusa Pacific to a 72-68 Golden State Athletic Conference victory over The Master’s College before 1,104 people in the Felix Event Center.
The lob bucket was the final touch on an excellent game in which Butler tallied team highs of 21 points, 8 rebounds, 5 steals, 4 assists, a block, and oh yes, one impressive, finger-roll game-winning basket.
“My instinct was to dunk the ball,” said Butler, “but I saw (The Master’s David Day) slide under and I thought I better make the easy play. Coach (Odell) made a good call. We haven’t run that play in I don’t know how long.”
Butler’s basket gave Azusa Pacific a 71-68 lead. The Master’s Ryan Reed couldn’t connect on a 3-point shot from the top of the key and the Cougars escaped with the victory, their third straight.
“I told Demario that to not dunk the ball was the smartest decision he has made all season,” said Odell. “That inbounds play has 2 options, to go to Scott Zea for a corner 3 if he is open, or to lob into the key for Demario. Josh (Reisman) made a perfect lob pass.”
Azusa Pacific led 35-31 at halftime, and it took Butler to single-handedly give the Cougars the lead by snapping a 29-all tie with 3 successive steals in the final 80 seconds, all of which he finished off with a score to give the Cougars the halftime advantage.
“They were holding me, and I said something to the ref, but he was rude to me,” said Butler. “It kind of got me angry, so I just decided to go after it and play more physical in the last minute. I got the steals and the baskets.”
The Cougars led throughout much of the second half, but seemingly failed to convert on several “get-away” baskets, each time allowing the Mustangs to stay within striking distance, and they did eventually strike. Down by 8 points on 3 occasions in the second half, The Master’s rallied and took the lead at 56-55 on a jumper by Giovanni St. Amant with 8 minutes to play. Moments later, a pair of Mateusz Sowa free throws put TMC up by 2. Azusa Pacific answered by scoring the next 4 points and took the lead for good on a Tristan King lay-up that made it 60-58 with 6 minutes to go.
A Ryan Zamroz trey from the left wing with 53 seconds left got the Mustangs to within 1 at 69-68, setting up Butler’s game-clinching “drop” at the other end.
“Demario played much better in the second half,” said Odell. “It was a physical game. He sucked it up and got more physical as well. He is grasping the offense better and is making better decisions as to when to go to the rim and when not to.”
All-American forward Lance Soderberg added 15 points to go along with 3 assists and 2 steals. Reisman finished with 12 points and buried 2 free throws with 3 minutes remaining that gave Azusa Pacific a 67-63 lead. Junior center Brice Prather added 10 points and 7 rebounds.
The Master’s boasts the GSAC’s top 2 scorers, in St. Amant and Reed. However, the Cougars were able to slow the duo down. St. Amant did reach his average of 18 points but was 7-for-16 from the floor in doing so. Reed scored 13 points but only 7 over the final 25 minutes of the game, partly because he was saddled with foul trouble (3 in the first half) that limited his availability.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 20-3 overall and registers its 14th straight 20-win season. The Cougars strengthen their hold on first place in the GSAC, moving to 11-2 to assume a 2.5 game lead over Westmont and San Diego Christian.
The Master’s loses for the eighth time in the past 11 games and falls to 9-12 overall, 4-8 in the GSAC.