FULLERTON, Calif. –- Junior center Brice Prather scored 18 of his career-high 20 points in the second half, including 14 in the first 8 minutes of the frame, to lead the NAIA’s No. 6-ranked Azusa Pacific to a 74-62 victory over Point Loma Nazarene in the semifinals of the Golden State Athletic Conference Tournament.
The victory puts Azusa Pacific back in the conference postseason tournament title game for the sixth straight year where the Cougars will meet San Diego Christian, a 79-74 come-from-behind victor over Vanguard in an earlier semi. The championship game is set for Tuesday (March 7) at 7:30 p.m. in the Darling Pavilion at Hope International University in Fullerton, Calif.
As has been the case for most games in recent weeks, Azusa Pacific struggled from the outset of the contest, this time falling behind by as much as 13 points before rallying to tie the game at halftime and eventually pulling away for the win in the final 8 minutes of play.
After being benched with 2 quick fouls just 3 minutes into the game, Prather came back after halftime to single-handedly carry Azusa Pacific like never before. The 6-foot-8 former Villa Park High standout made his first 7 shots of the half, an assortment of jump hooks, up-and-under lay-ups, and short jumpers in the key while going toe-to-toe with Point Loma’s All-GSAC center Tim Kruge.
Immediately following the seventh basket, which gave the Cougars a 47-46 lead, Prather called a timeout to get himself out of the game.”
“I was exhausted,” said Prather, who finished the game making 10-of-12 shots. “As I came down court, I had my hands out asking the coaches to take me out. There was a little miscommunication because they thought I was calling a certain play, so they ran another play for me. As soon as the ball went through the net, I yelled for a timeout to the ref.”
Point Loma, which was fighting for its playoff life and a berth into the NAIA Championship Tournament, was not fazed by Prather’s work. Instead, the Sea Lions relied on their own big man, Kruge, who finished with a game-high 27 points on 12-for-15 shooting. As a result, the 2 teams traded leads 13 times in the second half until Azusa Pacific finally secured the lead for good on a Scott Zea jumper that put the Cougars up 55-54 with 8:20 to play. Kasey Myers followed with a pair of free throws, before Prather came up with a marvelous defensive play, stuffing Kruge on a lay-up. At the other end, Prather came back to beat Kruge on a nifty post move to give Azusa Pacific a 59-54 advantage with just over 5 minutes remaining.
“Kruge and I went back and forth in that second half,” said Prather. “I was thinking, ‘bring it at me, and I’ll bring it back.’ I was not going to back down.”
The Cougars closed the game on a 13-3 run over the final 3 minutes of play to avenge a 21-point thumping the Sea Lions laid on the Cougars in Azusa back on Feb. 16.
“We’ve been shooting the ball so poorly lately that tonight we wanted to establish the inside play, and hopefully get Kruge in foul trouble,” said Azusa Pacific’s Bill Odell, the GSAC co-Coach of the Year. “We ran stuff for Brice and he responded.”
Point Loma Nazarene grabbed the early lead, using an 18-4 run in which Kruge scored 10 points to assume a 23-10 cushion with nearly 7 minutes left in the first half. When Prather went to the bench in foul trouble early in the game, Zea replaced him and eventually found his touch, scoring 11 of his 15 points over the final 12 minutes of the half to rally Azusa Pacific to a 28-all tie at the break.
“Scott played great in the first half,” said Odell, “and Lance (Soderberg) gave us a solid effort considering we weren’t sure he was going to play.”
The All-American Soderberg, who was battling a flu-like virus, knocked down a trey from the top of the key to jumpstart a sluggish Cougar offense in the first half.. He finished 7 points, 7 rebounds and a career-high 5 assists, 3 of which ended in Prather lay-ups in the second half.
Senior guard Josh Reisman added 11 points. In answer to a Point Loma 3-pointer that cut the Cougar margin to just 2 with 3 minutes to play, Reisman nailed a counter trey from the left wing to keep the Cougar lead at 5 at 64-59.
Point Loma Nazarene, which opened the week ranked No. 30 in the final NAIA Poll, needed to win tonight and then again Tuesday to get into the 32-team NAIA Tournament after a potential at-large bid was taken from the Sea Lions by upsets in other conference tournaments over the past 2 nights. Point Loma’s season comes to an end at 18-11.
Meanwhile, Azusa Pacific improves to 27-5 and now prepares for San Diego Christian, which earlier this season swept its first-ever regular-season series from Azusa Pacific, beating the Cougars 62-59 in Azusa (Jan. 17) and 69-68 in San Diego (Feb. 18). The Hawks will lean on All-GSAC forward Rowan Gray, who in the 2 victories over Azusa Pacific averaged 24.5 points and 10.5 rebounds.
“I’m peaking at the right time,” said Prather when asked about facing Kruge and Gray in back-to-back games. “I’m excited to go against the big guys. The bigger the better.”
Both teams have already secured berths into the NAIA Tournament, Azusa Pacific by virtue of winning the GSAC regular season title, and San Diego Christian clinched a spot by reaching the postseason tournament title game vs. the Cougars. On line in Tuesday’s title tilt is seeding advantages for the NAIA Championship Tournament.