The win, combined with Pikeville’s win over defending national champion Oklahoma Baptist on Wednesday, makes the Bears the first team to ever beat the previous season’s national finalists to open the following year’s tournament.
It also gives the Bears 27 wins, which matches the 2000-01 team for the second most in school history. They will play for No. 28 at 3 p.m. EST on Saturday in the round of eight, which would match the 1958-59 Bears for the most ever.
Friday morning’s win nearly didn’t happen. Azusa Pacific dominated the opening 10 minutes of the second half. Leading 40-39 at the break, the Cougars opened the second half with an 18-7 run. A basket inside with 10:15 to play by senior Danny Nugent made it 58-46.
“These guys have a huge valentine,” said Coach Kelly Wells. “We play with a lot of heart, so much that it sometimes surprises me. They work hard and play hard and it works out on the scoreboard.”
From there, however, the Bears began the first of three runs to take control of the game. A 12-1 run, which featured three-point baskets by seniors Vance Cooksey, Ryan Whitaker and Justin Hicks, ended when Cooksey nailed two free throws with 6:56 left. The 3:19 run pulled the Bears within one, 59-58.
Cooksey, a senior from Chicago, finished with 22 points, six assists, four steals and three rebounds. But it was his assists as much as his points – which came largely on 13-of-13 shooting from the line – that impressed his coach.
Asked about his shooters – Hicks and Setty split eight three-point shots on the morning – the coach laid the credit firmly on the back of his point guard. “Our shooters should take that guy to dinner at least once a week,” Wells said. “He drives and gets to the basket and draws the defenders, which leads to a lot of open shots for them.”
Setty had 21 points to go with four rebounds and three steals, while Hicks tossed in 15 and grabbed six rebounds. Pikeville won the rebounding battle 45-43.
Azusa (29-6) pulled back in front 65-58, but the Bears responded with a 9-1 run. It began with four points by senior Quincy Hankins-Cole, and when sophomore Trevor Setty nailed a three with 2:38 to play, the Bears were on top for the first time since the 3:04 mark of the first half at 67-66.
The game was tied two more times, including at 71 when Nugent sank a basket with 1:15 to play.
But the Bears went on a 9-2 run to wrap it up. Setty had four, as did Cooksey, as Pikeville hit 5-of-7 from the line to take a seven-point lead before the Cougars scored the final basket to make it five.
Senior Quincy Hankins-Cole had a double-double for the Bears, finishing with 10 points and 11 rebounds, six of which came off the offensive glass.
APU got 18 points and seven rebounds from junior Marshall Johnson. Senior Reggie Owens, who was on the all-tournament team a year ago, was held to 10 points but pulled down 17 rebounds.
Senior Caleb Burgess came off the bench for 16, while freshman Robert Sandoval joined him with 11.