FULLERTON, Calif. –- The third time was a charm.
And it was impressive, and complete, and dominating. It was a measure of revenge and a statement all rolled into one.
Never before in the 15-year Bill Odell era has an opponent beaten Azusa Pacific 3 times in a season. San Diego Christian, which downed the Cougars twice during the regular season, entered tonight’s GSAC Tournament title game standing on the threshold of history only to have the door slammed on its face.
The NAIA’s No. 6-ranked Azusa Pacific used a swarming interior defense, a deep bench and timely perimeter shooting to run away from No. 14 San Diego Christian for a convincing 83-58 victory to win the GSAC Tournament championship for the fourth time in the past 6 years and the seventh time in the tournament’s 13-year history.
“This is the first time we’ve played them this season in which we were really healthy, no injury, no sickness” said Cougar coach Bill Odell. “I thought we were the better team, but I am surprised by the margin of victory.”
Azusa Pacific fashioned a 15-4 run that stretched across both halves to take control of a hotly contested game, creating some breathing room with a 39-26 lead less than 2 minutes into the second half. Six different Cougars scored during the run but it was All-GSAC forward Demario Butler who did most of the damage, scoring 6 of his team-high 15 points during the mini explosion.
Moments later, Tristan King and Josh Reisman buried back-to-back treys and thoughts of a rout began to trickle through the minds of those in attendance. However, with All-GSAC center Rowan Gray on the inside and Tyler Hayes, who made the second-most 3-pointers in the GSAC this year, on the perimeter, no win over San Diego Christian is assured, even when Azusa Pacific was up by 16 with 10 minutes to play.
However, Cougar front-linemen Lance Soderberg, Brice Prather and Scott Zea teamed to slow Gray, who in the 2 previous Hawk victories this season torched the Cougars for 49 points and 21 rebounds. Tonight he was held in check to a “mere” 14 points and 9 rebounds, good numbers indeed, but far from the damage he inflicted earlier this year.
“We doubled down on Gray a lot tonight and tried cut off his lanes to the basket,” said Cougar forward Scott Zea. “Then we wanted to frustrate and limit his passing lanes.”
Meanwhile Butler and King stayed within an arm’s length of Hayes, shadowing him the entire game and limiting him to just 2-for-10 shooting from 3-point territory. As a result, SDCC could never get back into the game.
Azusa Pacific was relentless in its defensive pursuit and persistent in its offensive attack, and to a man, they admitted that losing twice to San Diego Christian during the season fueled their fire and focus tonight.
“The first 2 times we played San Diego were total learning experiences for us,” said Butler. “We’re underestimated them, but this time we gave them complete respect and played solid defense.”
The key, though, came down to limiting Gray’s opportunities. The Cougars, who are known more as a finesse team, proved they could mix it up with one of the more physical teams in the GSAC.
“We played them tough,” said Odell. “We didn’t flop on defense. We took it and gave it back.”
“I sort of figured out this time how to defend him,” said Soderberg, who gives up 30 pounds to Gray but still recorded 9 points, 8 rebounds and a blocked shot. “I tried to beat him to every spot he likes and then give him a bump. I’m really proud of how we played defense against their entire team.”
Led by Zea and Mike Hornbuckle, who each had 12 points a piece, the Cougar bench bolstered Azusa Pacific in the closing moments of the first half and midway through the second half.
Reisman finished with 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting. Reserve center Justin Williamson surprisingly recorded a game- and career-high 4 assists.
The 25-point decision, which was San Diego Christian’s worst setback since falling to Azusa Pacific by 39 in 2004, matches the largest margin of victory in GSAC Tournament championship game history. Two years ago, Azusa Pacific dumped defending national champion Concordia, 66-41, in the GSAC Tourney title game.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific likely secured its eighth straight top-ten seed for the upcoming NAIA Championship Tournament. First-round pairings for the 32-team, 6-day tournament in Kansas City, Mo., are released Wednesday afternoon. The Cougars, who were the NAIA runner-up last year, head to Kansas City on Sunday (March 12).
“The national championship tournament is whole different level of play,” said Butler. “We’re headed back there humble but ready to play our hearts out.”