COSTA MESA, Calif. – The NAIA’s No. 8-ranked Azusa Pacific fashioned a 12-0 run midway through the second half that proved to be the difference as the Cougars ran away for an 81-69 road victory over Vanguard in both teams’ Golden State Athletic Conference regular season finale.
While the victory doesn’t directly affect Azusa Pacific’s immediate fortunes (it had already clinched a fourth straight GSAC title and the 13th in the past 14 seasons), it nonetheless gives the Cougars some added momentum heading into the postseason, which begins later this week, and it exacts some measure of revenge on a stinging 1-point overtime loss to the Lions back on Jan. 24.
Junior forward Demario Butler, who has been excellent throughout the entire season, saved his best performance for the final regular-season game, tallying season- and game-highs of 25 points and 9 rebounds to lead the Cougars to their seventh straight victory at Vanguard’s revered “Pit.” He scored 15 points in the second half alone on 6-for-9 shooting
With the game tied at 49-49, Azusa Pacific ripped off 12 consecutive points in a 4-minute stretch, capped by Scott Zea’s second 3-ball of the run to give the Cougars a comfortable 61-49 advantage with just under 8 minutes to play. From there the Cougars kept Vanguard at bay, using another timely Zea trey to thwart a mini-run in which the Lions rallied back to within 4 at 64-60 with 3 minutes left in the game.
The Cougars overcame a 35-32 halftime deficit with a blistering touch from the field in the second half, draining 18-of-27 (.667) shots, including 5-of-7 from the 3-point arc. Zea was a perfect 4-for-4 from 3-point territory in the final 10 minutes, banging home a pair of treys as the shot clock sounded. He finished with 14 points to go along with 6 rebounds, and perhaps just as importantly, he slowed down Vanguard’s Levi Seekins as he began to heat up in the second half. Seekins, who torched the Cougars for 28 points in last month’s victory in Azusa, this time missed his final 4 shots down the stretch and committed a pair of turnovers with Zea hounding him.
Brice Prather chipped in with 11 points and 5 rebounds. The 55-percent free throw shooter was a perfect 3-for-3 at the line, all part of an 8-for-10 Cougar effort in the second half after Azusa Pacific couldn’t get the charity stripe in the first half.
Vanguard’s top 2 scorers, Seekins and Horace Wormley, came into the game averaging a combined 34 points in GSAC play, but the Cougar defense held the duo to 25 points on 11-for-34 (.323) shooting.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 25-5 overall and finishes the GSAC season at 16-4. The Cougars are an impressive 196-34 (.852) in GSAC play since 1993. Vanguard, which is enjoying its best campaign in 8 years, finishes the regular season at 19-11 overall, 13-7 in the GSAC.
As the GSAC regular-season champion, Azusa Pacific enters the GSAC Postseason Tournament as the No. 1 seed and will host California Baptist in 1 of 4 quarterfinal games Thursday (March 2) at 7:30 p.m. in the Felix Event Center. Tickets are $8 for adults, $5 for students and can be purchased as the Felix Event Center Ticket Office.
Thursday’s 4 winners advance to the semifinals, which will be held Saturday (March 4) at the Darling Pavilion on the campus of Hope International University in Fullerton, Calif.