Maybe it was due to the largest and loudest crowd of the year. Or maybe it was Senior Night. Maybe it was the opponent, No. 6 Azusa Pacific. Or maybe it was a great way to cap an evening on which former great Mike Penberthy’s jersey was retired.
Quite possibly, all of these contributed to the greatest evening of an otherwise disappointing season as The Master’s College stunned the Cougars 78-77 in a game that sucked the emotion out of a boisterous crowd only to replace it at the most opportune time.
The Mustangs’ third win in their last four outings, combined with losses by Hope International and Vanguard, boosted the club into sole possession of eighth place in the GSAC (5-14, 12-17 overall) and made them masters of their postseason destiny with one game left in the regular season.
Although the Mustangs spotted the Cougars a quick 4-0 lead, the club really came to play, ripping off eight consecutive points to lead by four with 15:43 left in the first half. A Leif Karlberg three-pointer sparked the Mustangs, Anthony Cammon duplicated that from long range, and Brandon Bibbins capped the run with a layup.
That did little to faze the highly-regarded Cougars who knotted the game at 12 on a Caleb Burgess triple with 13:25 remaining. But, then Karlberg went to work, unlocking the tie with another triple and then sandwiching another three-ball around a layup as part of a 10-0 run that moved the Mustangs in front 22-12 at the 11:27 mark.
However, it didn’t take long for the Cougars to respond. Ripping off seven straight points, they pulled within three (22-19) on a Mike Caffese layup with 8:41 left. Less than three minutes later, they made it a one-point game (26-25) on a pair of James Staniland charity tosses.
But, the Mustangs proved to be resilient, holding on to the slightest of leads and actually building on it, going up 36-31 on Karlberg’s fourth trey of the half. Then the spigot went dry for over three minutes as neither team could find the basket until APU’s Caffese hit a free throw with eight seconds left. The Mustangs countered in dramatic fashion, though, as Joey Fuca converted a three-point play at the buzzer, sending his team to halftime ahead 39-32.
Enjoying one of their finest shooting halves of the season, the Mustangs converted 54% of their shots while the Cougars were just behind at 52%. Karlberg, going 4-7 from behind the arc, led all scorers with 14 points.
The Mustangs lengthened their lead to a game-high nine points (41-32) when Devin Dyer sank a jumper 32 seconds into play but in what seemed like an instant (actually it was in a 3:25 span) the Cougars rallied all the way back, tearing off thirteen consecutive points to move ahead 45-41 on a Caffese three-ball at the 16:03 mark.
It appeared that the Cougars’ big move had set them up for a runaway. But, that was deceiving as the Mustangs turned right around with a run of their own, using an 8-0 burst to turn a five-point deficit into a three-point advantage in less than a minute. Consecutive three-pointers by Ronnie Dodd led the way and when Karlberg stole the ball and scored uncontested, the Mustangs had vaulted in front 52-49.
That lead lasted all of 21 seconds, though, as a Reggie Owens’ three-point play tied the game and keyed a 6-0 run that gave the Cougars a three-point edge. However, the Mustangs tied it up on their next possession when Paul Brown converted a three-point play, setting up a white knuckle final 10 minutes.
Brown’s three-point play did more than tie the game, it kicked off a 12-4 skein in a three-minute span that pushed the Mustangs out in front 64-59 at the 6:56 mark. Karlberg had seven straight points at the end of the spurt, including a layup for the five-point cushion.
The Mustangs held on tenaciously, executing their drive-and-kick offense to perfection, getting wide-open looks from behind the arc and taking advantage of them. Cammon hit a pair of threes down the stretch, the last one coming at the 2:22 mark for a 72-66 lead. The Mustangs finished 11-23 from three-point territory.
A Devin Dyer jumper extended the lead (74-66) to eight with 1:22 remaining and a Wells’ free throw 20 seconds later, following an APU charity toss, restored the eight-point advantage and put the Mustangs in great position for the upset.
But, then they nearly gave it away. Following a Wells’ miss at the line, APU’s Danny Nugent buried a three-pointer. After Dyer fumbled away the inbounds pass, Nugent made the Mustangs pay for the mistake with another trey and after Wells missed another free throw, Caleb Burgess drained another triple and converted the ensuing free throw, moving the Cougars from an eight-point deficit to a two-point (77-75) lead in a matter of 35 seconds.
Now, it had all the markings of another snake-bitten loss for the drained Mustangs. Following a timeout, the ball was put in Dyer’s hands for the final shot or so everyone thought. The sophomore guard penetrated and then dished the ball to Cammon who was fouled on a three-point attempt. The junior transfer went to the line and calmly sank all three shots, moving the Mustangs back in front, 78-77.
That left it up to the Cougars who hurried the ball up the court and got a great look on Robert Sandoval’s runner in the lane that just trickled off the front rim as the buzzer sounded. That set off a wild, jubilant celebration with the partisan crowd engulfing the Mustangs in triumph.
Karlberg, who has struggled from behind the arc for most of the season, regained his shooting touch Tuesday evening with a 5-10, long-range performance on the way to a game-high 23 points. Cammon canned a trio of trifectas en route to 14 points, Dyer had 12 more and Wells came off the bench to tally 10 big points.
Now it all comes down to Saturday evening at Vanguard where a win will ensure the Mustangs of the conference’s eighth and final playoff spot. A loss will put an end to their season.