KANSAS CITY, Mo.. –- If patience is a virtue, than Azusa Pacific is perhaps the most enduring team in the 32-team field of the NAIA Championship Tournament, and considering the nature of these Cougars, it is rather shocking whenever they are serene.
The NAIA’s No. 6-ranked Azusa Pacific used a deliberate, time-consuming, half-court attack to slow down the transition offense of No. 9. Trevecca Nazarene (Tenn.) and post a 78-75 victory in the second-round of the NAIA Tournament staged in Kansas City’s famed Municipal Auditorium.
Cougar reserves Scott Zea and Kasey Myers came off the bench to spearhead Azusa Pacific to a near wire-to-wire victory, though the Trojans put a last minute scare into the Cougars. Zea tallied team-highs of 22 points (11 in each half) and 8 rebounds, and Myers buried consecutive 3-pointers to highlight a game-changing run and then directed the game plan to near perfection to lead Azusa Pacific back into the Elite Eight for the second consecutive year.
“Scott was clutch for us,” said Cougar coach Bill Odell, who with this victory ran his NAIA Tournament record to 20-12 over the past 14 years. “We wanted to go inside today, but we knew with their 2 big guys we weren’t going to get rich in there. Scott, though, knocked down some big shots.”
Midway through the first half, Zea drained a trey from the top of the key to give the Cougars a 5-point advantage. Azusa Pacific later put together a 14-5 run to assume a 38-27 lead and in the process put Trevecca Nazarene on its collective heals. Myers burned the Trojan zone defense with back-to-back treys, first from the left corner and then from the left wing to put Azusa Pacific up 36-27. Fellow reserve Mike Hornbuckle followed with a floater, and Azusa Pacific had its comfortable 11-point advantage with 1:34 left in the opening half.
From then on, the Cougars, who led 40-34 at the break, relied on a slow, passing approach to never surrender the lead in the second half, working the ball around the Trojan zone, waiting for a perfect shot. And when it wasn’t there, the Cougars crashed the offensive board. Nearly half of their 47 rebounds were on the offensive side, 20 to be exact.
“Out biggest weakness has been the inability to get the defensive rebound,” said Trevecca Nazarene coach Sam Harris. “Against Azusa Pacific we didn’t block out enough.”
And the Cougars exploited.
All-American Lance Soderberg, who has struggled mightily the past month averaging less than 6 points in the past 8 games, was the main benefactor of the Cougars’ board crashing, collecting 11 points and 7 rebounds in 28 minutes of play.
“I came into this game knowing I need to face the basket and make them come after me,” said Soderberg. “I’ve been backing off after the initial contact but I knew that against Trevecca I could not bump and stop. I had to get keep going into the basket.”
A Soderberg put-back with 6:30 left in the game gave Azusa Pacific a 65-54 lead, its largest of the second half, and Azusa Pacific appeared to be in cruise control. Down the stretch, though, Trojan guards Jerod Perry and and TranSouth Athletic Conference Player of the Year Alex Renfroe caught fire at both the offensive and defensive ends, using a press and long-range shooting to go on an 11-2 run to pull to within 2 at 73-71 following a Perry trey with 45 seconds left in the game.
“They would not go away,” said Odell. “I thought we had a couple of knock out punches there in the second half, but they kept coming back. At one point I turned to my assistants and said ‘weren’t we up by 5 a second a go’ and here we were hoping to make free throws just to make it a 2 possession game.”
The Cougars made 7 free throws in the final minute, 4 straight by Demario Butler and 3 more by Zea, to keep Trevecca at bay.
Throughout the second half, Azusa Pacific patiently executed its offense, oftentimes working the shot clock to its final conclusion, including once when Butler drained a difficult trey to keep the Cougars up 11 at 65-54 with just under 6 minutes to play.
“They caused a lot of our patience on offense by confusing us with their defense that they mixed up,” said Odell. “In the second half I gave more specifics to our players as to what to run no matter what defense they were in.”
Myers was employed to engineer the offense, playing 22 minutes off the bench, his most action in over 2 months.
“Kasey was the leader I needed on the floor,” said Odell. “I just felt more comfortable when I brought him off the bench to run things. He has the experience, and he’s a very smart player.”
Butler added 17 points to aid the Cougar cause, including 11 in the second half. He had a key rim-rattling dunk following his mid-court steal after TNU had pulled to within 6 and was looking to narrow the deficit to 4. Instead, the Cougars went up 58-50 with under 8 minutes to play.
Next up for Azusa Pacific is a rematch of last year’s semifinal with Robert Morris. The Cougars meet the Eagles in the first of Saturday’s (March 18) 4 quarterfinals, tipping off at noon (PST).
“I wish they didn’t have the 2 big guys that they’ve added this year,” said Odell when assessing Robert Morris. “They have speed, quickness and now size. They present a big challenge. They’re a very good team and deserve their No. 3 seed.”
Robert Morris dumped Spring Hill (Ala.), 87-71, earlier in the day.
With today’s victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 30-5 and registers its fifth 30-win season in program history and the second in 3 years. Trevecca Nazarene has its season come to an end at 26-7.