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Azusa Pacific loses, but triumphantly

Despite a crushing NAIA championship game loss, Cougars find solace.

March 25, 2010

For every shining moment, there are dozens of dark ones. March Madness is a triumphant march for a few, a despairing madness for many.

Not every college basketball tournament story ends with champions giddily cutting down a net. Sometimes it ends with second-place finishers despondently stuck on a bus.

That was the Azusa Pacific men's basketball team Wednesday morning after returning from what was surely one of the cruelest of national championship defeats.

Less than 24 hours earlier, playing Oklahoma Baptist in the NAIA championship game in Kansas City, the Cougars had blown a five-point lead in the final 1 minute 23 seconds.

There was a missed free throw by a perfect free-throw shooter. There was a missed pass by the same senior leader. And then, with Azusa trailing by a point in the final seconds, there was the most brutal of endings — sophomore guard Marshall Johnson sank a fall-away jumper at the buzzer to apparently give Azusa the victory, but it was overturned when a replay showed he shot it one-tenth of a second too late.

The Azusa players collapsed to the floor and cried, sobs that came and went for nearly an hour. They later crowded into a commercial flight home amid uncomfortable looks from NAIA fans, stares that seemingly lasted forever.

When their bus from the airport finally pulled up at the campus' Kresge Plaza on Wednesday morning, the exhausted players looked out the window in horror. A school chapel service had just ended, and it seemed as though most of the 4,200 students were milling about, waiting for them, waiting to … do what, exactly?

‘'These were all the people we had let down,'' said Johnson. ‘'After all we had been through, we just couldn't deal with them.''

So they stayed on the bus. Their coach and his family stepped off, but the players remained seated. The coach disappeared into the crowd and his team still did not move.

One-tenth of a second. Imagine a championship coming down to one extra breath required to make a game-winning basket official.

Azusa Pacific needed it. The clock didn't grant it. The Cougars' dramatic journey toward what was going to be their first NAIA men's basketball championship ended in the sort of ruins that will linger much longer than one-tenth of second.

‘'Devastating,'' said Justin Leslie, Azusa's emotional young coach. ‘'Thinking about that one-tenth of a second is just devastating.''

The 84-83 defeat was an awful ending on so many levels. A team that had stuck together after two of its starters were sidelined with injuries during the tournament seemed to come apart.

With Azusa leading by three points with 56 seconds left, senior guard Dominique Johnson missed the first of a one-and-one free-throw opportunity. It was his first miss in nine free-throw tries during the game.

‘'I knew I had to get it out of my mind,'' he said.

Not so fast. After Oklahoma Baptist took the lead with a four-point possession, Johnson stumbled and allowed a pass to bounce off his hands and back to the Bisons.

"There was some contact and I lost my balance,'' said Johnson.

Who did? Who could imagine? Still, Azusa was able to get the ball with 12 seconds remaining and a chance to win. Still, Dominique Johnson's missed shot was tossed back into the basket by Marshall Johnson at the buzzer in a moment so intense, even the officials froze.

But when they checked the monitor, it showed the shot was one-tenth of a second late, Oklahoma Baptist dancing. Azusa Pacific collapsing.

"We couldn't believe it,'' said Marshall Johnson. "It was hard to even think about it.''

And it got even harder. The Cougars were asked to stay on the court while the winners received their trophies. They gracefully, painfully agreed to the longest 30 minutes of their lives.

‘'I pulled my jersey over my face, I just couldn't watch,'' said Dominique Johnson.

Later, in the locker room, the Cougars were asked by their coach to participate in the usual postgame prayer of thanks. Thanks? They could barely get it out between sobs, but they gracefully, painfully agreed.

‘'That's just what we do,'' said Marshall Johnson.

That's just who they are, this tiny foothills school renowned for its sportsmanship again showing up like giants.

And so that's why, eventually, on Wednesday morning, they got off that bus.

"I guess we finally realized, you live, you learn, and life moves on,'' said Dominique Johnson.

And what a lesson this was. Because, it turns out, those several thousand waiting students did not show up to console or scorn or gawk at them.

They showed up to cheer them. They showed up to loudly applaud them and tightly hug them and thank them for behaving like champions. They brought a giant congratulatory banner, and a huge celebratory cake, and enough love that for the second time in 24 hours, the Azusa Pacific players could not believe their eyes.

"They were all over us,'' said Marshall Johnson. ‘'Not one person said they were sorry for us. Everyone said they were proud of us.''

A day later, the school held a celebratory reception for an Azusa women's team that had also lost in the NAIA championship game, it's what they do, it's who they are, lessons everywhere, dark moments shining.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

Twitter.com/billplaschke

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