The victory, which wasn’t secured until the final minute of play, puts Azusa Pacific back in the tournament semifinals for the seventh straight year where the Cougars will meet Point Loma Nazarene, Saturday (March 4) at 7:30 p.m. in the Darling Pavilion of Hope International University. San Diego Christian will take on Vanguard in the preceding semi at 5:30 p.m.
Only once before in the 13-year history of the GSAC Postseason Tournament has a No. 8-seed knocked off the top-seed in the opening round of play. Unfortunately, it was the Cougars who played the victim to that dubious achievement back in 1999. Tonight, history appeared to be on the brink of repeating itself to horror of Azusa Pacific.
The Cougars, this year’s tournament top seed again, squandered a 10-point first half lead and fell behind by as much as 8 points in the second half before using a 19-7 run over an 8-minute stretch to rally back on hold on for its third win over California Baptist this season.
Center Brice Prather scored 6 of his 12 points in succession to knot the game at 55-55, and All-GSAC forward Demario Butler capped the run with back-to-back jumpers to turn a 48-40 deficit into a 59-55 Cougar lead with just under 5 minutes to play. From there, the Cougars held off CBU with Butler again burying a crucial 13-foot jumper with a defender in his face to give Azusa Pacific an insurmountable 65-60 advantage with 99 ticks on clock remaining.
“The shot clock was running down, and I knew I had to get the shot off,” said Butler. “As the ball left my hands I just prayed it would go down, and it did.”
Butler finished with a team-high 13 points, 6 of which came in the final 7 minutes, and Tristan King and Lance Soderberg joined Prather with 12 points apiece.
Peter Rajniak, who had torched the Cougars for 77 points the previous 3 meetings (25.7 avg.), led Cal Baptist but this time with just 14 points.
“In the second half we got after it on defense,” Cougar coach Bill Odell, who improved to 26-7 in GSAC Postseason Tourney play. “Demario did a better job on Rajniak, particularly in the last 4 minutes.”
A Rajniak trey from the right corner pulled Cal Baptist to within 1 at 59-58 with 4:02 left in the game. However, it was the last field goal the Lancers would make the rest of the evening. Jumpers by Soderberg and Zea kept the Cougars up by 3 and an arrant 3-point shot by Rajniak opened the door for Butler to bury his game-clinching shot.
“My main, main goal tonight, even before scoring, was stopping him (Rajniak),” said Butler. “I wasn’t as aggressive on defense. I didn’t gamble and go for steals. I just wanted to keep him in front of me and play solid defense.”
At the outset, Azusa Pacific controlled play, scooting out to a 25-15 advantage following a monstrous alley-oop Butler dunk off a Kasey Myers’ pass 9 minutes into play. The Cougars made 10 of their first 13 shots but then went ice cold and missed 10 of their final 13 shot of the half, allowing the Lancers to comeback and assume a 35-34 halftime lead.
“We were just terrible at making shots tonight,” said Odell. “It’s a matter of concentration, of being intent and focused on what we’re doing. Give Cal Baptist credit though, they’re defense was forcing us to be stagnant in our half court offense.”
The sluggish play continued into the early minutes of the second half as the Cougars missed 6 of their first 8 shots and committed a pair of turnovers. Cal Baptist capitalized, draining a trio of treys, one each by Rajniak, Junior Denson, and the final by Ron Bailey to put Cal Baptist up 48-40. However, Cal Baptist scored just 13 points over the final 14 minutes of play, missing a notable upset in tournament history.
“Our defense is what turned the game around,” said King, who at the other end continually attacked the basket and at times single-handedly carry the Cougar offense at its dormant moments. “The key was our defense, and particularly what Demario did on Rajniak.”
The game was clean and well-played. Cal Baptist committed just 10 turnovers tonight after combining for 45 ball-handling miscues in the first 2 meetings with Azusa Pacific this season. The Cougars had just 9 turnovers, and only 27 fouls were called between the 2 teams, which in end proved to be a problem for the Lancers.
Cal Baptist was whistled just once through 18 minutes of the second half, which caught the ire of Cougar coaches until it proved to be advanteous in the closing seconds. Once Azusa Pacific went up by 5, the Lancers were forced to repeatedly foul, committing 6 hacks in a 39-second span, forcing a reset of the shot clock each time. When the Cougars finally went the line, they converted all 4 of their free throw attempts in the final 28 seconds.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 26-5 on the season. Cal Baptist’s campaign comes to an end at 13-16.