No. 18/20 Dixie State saw its 2018 NCAA Tournament run, and its school-record 17-game winning streak, come to an abrupt end as the Trailblazers came out on the short end of a hard-fought 69-65 decision to Azusa Pacific on Friday afternoon at Western Oregon’s NPE Gymnasium.
DSU, which swept both the Pacific West Conference regular season and tournament championships, finished with a school record 23 victories as the Trailblazers closed the 2017-18 season with a 23-7 overall record.
The No. 2-seeded Trailblazers led 19-12 midway through the first half thanks to the hot shooting of Trevor Hill, who hit three of his first four shots while accounting for nine of DSU’s first 19 points.
However, DSU could not contain the APU duo of Petar Kutlesic and Darien McClain, who combined to score 25 of the No. 7-seeded Cougars’ 29 first-half points. While Kutlesic did most of his scoring in the early going, it was McClain who brought Azusa Pacific back as he hit three 3-pointers as APU outscored DSU, 17-9, to wrestle the lead away at 29-28 with 3:27 to go in the period.
Dixie State came with buckets from Hill and Isaiah Clark as the Trailblazers held APU scoreless in the final three-plus minutes of the stanza and took a 32-29 advantage into the halftime break.
DSU continued APU’s scoreless drought through the first three minutes of the second half. But the Trailblazers could not take advantage as they were just as cold on the offensive end as both teams struggled before Cougar forward Corey Langerveld broke through with a transition trey to knot the score at 32-32 with 17:00 remaining.
Brandon Simister answered with the first of his three second-half 3-pointers on DSU’s next trip down the court, but Langerveld countered by scoring seven of APU’s next 10 points to give his side its biggest lead of the game at 42-38 with 14:30 to go.
Simister answered the APU spurt with five-straight points that sparked a quick 10-0 Trailblazer run as DSU wrestled the lead back, 48-42, after an Austin Montgomery tip-in at the 10:47 mark. However, DSU could not build on that lead as McClain drilled consecutive 3-pointers and Langerveld finished a fast break with a lay-in to put APU back on top at 50-48 with 8:48 to go.
The two teams then battled back and forth through five ties and three lead changes before APU forward Selom Mawugbe put the Cougars up 64-62 with a bucket in the paint with 2:47 to go. Then, after the Trailblazers missed on their next possession, the DSU defense forced APU into a long-range try as the shot clock was expiring, but the ball grazed the rim and into the waiting arms of Kutlesic who tipped home the miss as the shot clock reset to extend the Cougar lead to four points.
Simister drew the Trailblazers to within 66-65 with a 3-pointer with 49 seconds to go. The senior hoisted up a deep three that caromed off the rim to Dub Price, who then kicked it back out to Simister for a straight-away trey to make it a one-possession game.
DSU again stepped up the defensive pressure on the ensuing APU possession and forced a Mandrell Worthy desperation 3-point heave in the closing seconds of the shot clock. But again Kutlesic was there to clear the airball for another tip-in just as the shot clock buzzer sounded to extend the Cougar lead to 68-65 with 19 seconds remaining.
The Trailblazers had one more shot to tie the game, but Hill’s 3-point try with six seconds left fell off the mark. APU cleared the rebound, and McClain split a pair of free throws with 0.8 seconds left to ice the win.
Simister scored 12 of his team-high 17 points in the second half and finished with four 3-pointers. Meanwhile, Hill posted his fourth double-double of the season with 15 points and a game-high 11 rebounds to go with three assists. Montgomery added nine points and four rebounds, all on the offensive end, and Kyler Nielson tallied nine points in his final collegiate game.
Dixie State struggled from the floor as the Trailblazers shot just 33.8 percent (22-of-65), which included a chilly 28.6 percent (10-of-35) in the second half. DSU also went 4-of-14 (.286) from the perimeter and was hampered by nine missed free throws (17-of-26, .654). The Trailblazers outrebounded the Cougars by a 44-33 count, including a decisive 19-5 edge on the offensive glass, which resulted in a 13-4 edge in second-chance points. But it was those four Cougar second-chance points that proved to be the difference.
McClain led all scorers with 21 points, 18 of them coming from beyond the arc (6-of-11), while Kutlesic finished with 18 points and 10 boards and Langerveld scored all 15 of his points after halftime. APU shot 49.1 percent (27-of-55) from the floor and 53.6 percent (15-of-28) in the second half. With the win, APU advanced to Saturday’s regional semifinal against No. 3 seed California Baptist, which posted an 81-67 win over No. 6 seed UC San Diego in the first game of the day.
Steve Johnson is the Associate Athletic Director for Media Relations and Collegiate Licensing at Dixie State University. For more DSU Athletics news, please visit www.dixiestateathletics.com and follow Dixie State on Twitter at @DixieAthletics.