The Cougars, who let a 5-point lead slip through their hands in the final 2 minutes of regulation, squandered a 6-point advantage in the extra frame by going scoreless in the last 2 minutes of the game, committing 3 turnovers and missing 2 shots, including a lay-up in the last minute.
“I told the guys that it’s my fault,” said a dejected Azusa Pacific coach Bill Odell. “I didn’t do enough this years in demanding execution from them, to do the things I expect of them. Robert Morris is a good defensive team, but they give you opportunities. If you make the right decision, you can beat them.”
Instead, it was the Cougars who gave Robert Morris the opportunities, and the Eagles cashed in. Down 91-85 with 2 minutes left, the Eagles turned to 6-foot-10 Reggie George, who sandwiched a James Parker free throw with a pair of lay-ups, including one on a put-back over a depleted Cougar frontline to pull RMC to within 1 at 91-90 with 51 seconds left.
On the ensuing possession, the Cougars successfully navigated the Robert Morris press, but it would be the last time they would. Josh Reisman missed a driving lay-up with 36 seconds remaining. The Eagles again turned to George, who missed a 3-footer, but Parker got the rebound and was fouled by Kasey Myers with 10.5 seconds. Parker drained both free throws to put the Eagles up 92-91. Out of the second of 2 Cougar time outs called by Odell, Azusa Pacific turned the ball over when Parker stripped Tristan King in the key. An immediate foul put Parker back on the line where he made both free throws with 5 seconds. Out of another time out, the Cougars came down court and were unable to get off a shot after Reisman passed up an open but long 3.
“We didn’t do anything I wanted them to do out of the last 2 time outs,” said Odell.
The game was a thriller from the opening tip. It featured 11 ties and 15 lead changes. No squad ever led by more than 7. The Cougars held a 79-74 advantage with 2 minutes left in regulation, but Eagle forward Freeman Taylor scored 6 straight points in a matter of 43 seconds, and only a King free throw allowed Azusa Pacific to escape with overtime with the score tied at 82.
In the extra period, Azusa Pacific opened a 6-point lead at 89-83 following a Scott Zea fade-away jumper in the key with 2:39 to play. At the time, it appeared Azusa Pacific was headed back to the NAIA semifinals for the second straight year. Instead, Zea’s bucket was the last Cougar field goal of the season.
King led Azusa Pacific with a career-high 25 points, 21 of which came after halftime.
“Tristan has a great game,” said Odell. “Really, he had a great tournament. We isolated him some in the second half, and he’s just so strong and quick that he had success against their big men. He played great, he just got gassed at the end.”
Demario Butler added 23, while Zea finished with 10. In his 143rd and final game as a Cougar, All-American Lance Soderberg finished with 6 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. The 6-foot-9 Soderberg fouled out with 3 minutes left in overtime, and with 6-foot-7 center Brice Prather already out because of fouls in regulation, the Cougars had difficulty keeping the Eagles off the glass down the stretch.
Azusa Pacific closed the first half on a 14-4 run to assume a 37-34 lead at the break. Butler, who led the Cougars with 10 first-half points, nailed a 3 from the left wing to put the Cougars up 31-30 with 2 minutes left. Robert Morris regained the lead less than 2 minutes into the second half on an Aaron Wellington corner trey. From there the Eagles stretched their cushion to 7 at 72-65 following a Taylor 3-point play with 7:18 left in regulation.
Azusa Pacific answered with an 11-0 run capped by a Butler fast-break dunk to put the Cougars back up 76-72 with just over 3 minutes left in regulation.
“That was as exciting a game as I’ve been involved in during 15 years of coaching,” said Robert Morris coach Al Bruehl. “We were in trouble in regulation, we were in trouble in overtime, and our big-time players came up big-time.”
George led 6 Eagles in double-digit scoring with 22 points. Taylor tallied 19 to go along with 9 rebounds.
With the victory, Robert Morris avenges last year’s semifinal loss to Azusa Pacific and advances to the Fab Four with a 31-3 record. Azusa Pacific’s season comes to an end at 30-6.