KANSAS CITY, Mo.. –- Demario Butler’s put-back of a Lance Soderberg miss with 4.1 seconds left lifted the NAIA’s No. 6-ranked Azusa Pacific to a 65-63 victory over John Brown University (Ark.) in the first-round of the NAIA Men’s Basketball Championship Tournament in Municipal Auditorium.
For Azusa Pacific the victory is more than just a routine, last-shot, first-round victory in the national tournament. It’s more than an advancement to the “Sweet 16” where the Cougars will take on Trevecca Nazarene (Tenn.), Friday (March 17) at 10:30 a.m. (PST). No, this win is as much about the past as it is about the future.
John Brown delivered 2 of the most stinging defeats in Azusa Pacific history, and both came in the past 3 years and both came at the hands of All-American Brandon Cole. In 2003, the Cougars came to Kansas City as one of the few favored to win the national championship but instead went home after the first round when first-time tournament participant and unseeded JBU rallied for a 70-67 victory behind Cole’s deft shooting down the stretch. Then last year, the Golden Eagles met Azusa Pacific again, this time in the national championship game and pulled away in the final 5 minutes to post a 65-55 victory for its first-ever NAIA title. Cole scored a game-high 25 points.
Tonight, Cole had no heroics. In fact, his outstanding career, which includes becoming college basketball’s all-time 3-point shooter, came to an end by way of the team whose heart twice before he had broken.
“This is the greatest feeling,” said senior guard Kasey Myers, who remembers all so well the pain of the 2 setbacks to John Brown. “It feels like we won a national championship. Yeah, that’s pathetic because it’s only the first round, but it was John Brown!”
Azusa Pacific, which trailed by as much as 14 points in the first half and was still down by 9 (44-35) at halftime, used a stifling defense to get back into the game. The Cougars held JBU to just 6 second-half field goals and none over the final 6 minutes of the game. Their most effective work came on Cole, who missed 14-of-17 shots, including 9-of-11 from the 3-point territory and finished with 13 points, 8 below his season average.
“Tristan (King) did an excellent job on Cole tonight,” said Cougar coach Bill Odell. “I could not have asked for more from him. He made it very difficult for Cole to get good looks at the basket or sometimes to just get the ball.”
Behind the long-range shooting of Adam Workman and Cody Page, John Brown went on a torrid 19-4 run in which Workman buried 3 straight 3-pointers and Page added another to put the Golden Eagles up 32-21. When Alex Terry backed into the lane for a short jumper, JBU owned a very comfortable 40-26 advantage with 1:32 left in the first half.
“Their non-shooters were killing us on the perimeter,” said Odell. “We were doing such a good job on Cole but we weren’t closing out on the other guys. We did a better a job of that in the second half.”
Indeed, they did. Workman and Page combined for half of John Brown’s 44 first-half points but they didn’t score in the second half.
In the meantime, Azusa Pacific fashioned a 21-6 run that stretched across both halves to get back into the game. Yet the Cougars never led in the second half until Butler drained a pair of free throws with 1:17 remaining to give the Cougars a 63-62 advantage.
With 18 seconds left Cole drove the lane and drew a foul on Azusa Pacific’s Scott Zea. An 81-percent free throw shooter, he made the first attempt but missed the second, setting up Butler’s game-winning shot.
“I knew Lance was going to shoot it, he was 2 feet from the basket,” said Butler as he described the final play. “Coach told Tristan and me to crash the boards, and Cole wasn’t boxing out too well, so I got the ball, put it in and won the game.”
Butler’s heroic rebound and put-back also gave him his first double-double as a Cougar. He finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds. King, who carried the Cougars in the first half, tallied a game-high 19 points on the strength of a quartet of treys.
“Oh yeah, this is my best game as a Cougar,” said King, a first-year Cougar who hasn’t played in games vs. John Brown. “I made most of my shots, and I think I did a good job on Cole. Coach showed me a lot film on him, and said it was going to be rough. He compared him to J.J. Reddick, and I thought ‘wo, I better be ready.’”
Terry led a quartet of JBU players in double-figures with 16 points.
“I’m proud of our guys and how they battled,” said Odell. “They had some adversity, especially with the fouls in the first half, but they battled through it.”
Azusa Pacific improves to 29-5 and advances to the “Sweet 16” for the fifth time in the past 6 years. Trevecca Nazarene, which is out of Nashville, Tenn., and the TranSouth Athletic Conference, moved to 26-6 after an 82-67 first-round victory over Lambuth (Ky.). This is the second meeting ever between Azusa Pacific and Trevecca Nazarene. In 1972, the Cougars beat TNU, 82-60, in the semifinals of the National Christian College Athletic Association Championship Tournament.