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NAIA MEN'S BASKETBALL

Azusa Pacific Has a Balance of Power

March 24, 2004|Eric Stephens | Times Staff Writer

Azusa Pacific, with nine consecutive appearances, is a fixture at the National Assn. of Intercollegiate Athletics men's basketball tournament. The Cougars also dominate the Golden State Athletic Conference, having won their 11th title in the last 12 years.

This season's Cougars, however, didn't expect to go 31-4 and open the tournament as the second-seeded team, playing Voorhees College of Denmark, S.C., in the first round Thursday at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Mo.

"In the past, we've had some teams that were a little bit more star-oriented," Azusa Coach Bill Odell said. "There has been total balance in every aspect, and it's been very satisfying. They've sacrificed in some ways to be as good as they are."

Azusa Pacific has the longest winning streak in the nation, at 18 games, and is on a high after a 66-41 victory over defending national champion Irvine Concordia in the GSAC tournament title game. It was the second victory in three games against the Eagles, whom they'd edged by one game for the regular-season title.

Senior forward Brett Michel leads the team in scoring, but the Cougars' five starters average 9.1 to 13.2 points. Azusa has advanced to the semifinals in three of the last six seasons, but it will try to ease the memory of last year's 70-67 first-round loss to John Brown of Siloam Springs, Ark.

Concordia (29-4) hopes to repeat last year's surprise run to the title. Four returning starters -- forwards Torin Beeler and Tanner Luster, and guards Jeremy Groth and Chris Victor -- combined with 6-foot-10 center Nick Vander Laan to give the Eagles their best consecutive seasons in the program's history.

Vander Laan averaged 16.4 points and 11.3 rebounds as conference player of the year. The senior from Sacramento was a part-time starter for two years at California and one at Virginia.

"He called us a week before school started, and somehow we still had a scholarship available," Coach Ken Ammann said. "He had a couple of negative experiences, and he wanted to have a good year and a good college experience."

Ammann said his team had been a target all season. At one point, Concordia had a 22-game winning streak.

"I think it's helped us prepare better for games," he said. Biola (22-9), which finished in a third-place tie with Westmont in the GSAC, was an at-large selection for the tournament. Senior forward Kellan Eckle led the Eagles in scoring at 17.5 points and was second on the team with 6.2 rebounds.

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NAIA Men's Schedule

At Municipal Auditorium, Kansas City, Mo. (All times Pacific):

First-round matchups of local teams playing today:

* Biola (22-9) vs. Cumberland of Lebanon, Tenn. (26-5), 12:15 p.m.

* Irvine Concordia (29-4) vs. St. Xavier of Chicago (25-10), 8:30 p.m.

Thursday

* Azusa Pacific (31-4) vs. Voorhees of Denmark, S.C., (12-17), 10:30 a.m.

Note: Format is one 32-team bracket. Semifinals are Monday at 4 and 6 p.m.; championship game will be televised live on CSTV Tuesday night at 5.

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