AZUSA, Calif. – Azusa Pacific took a few punches to the gut, delivered a couple of round-house blows itself, and then withstood one final shot to the stomach to take an 89-84 verdict over Warner Pacific College in a battle of NAIA heavyweights that highlighted the opening night of the 21st Annual Cougar Classic.
The Cougar frontline of Todd Martin, Davon Roberts and David Burgess combined for 59 points and 29 rebounds to lead Azusa Pacific to the comeback victory, which had as many twists and turns as the hairpin drive to nearby Mt. Baldy.
On the strength of Martin’s hot perimeter shooting, Azusa Pacific assumed an 8-point lead at 37-29 with 6-and-a-half minutes left in the first half. The Cougars scored on 6 straight possessions, using a 14-6 run to snap a 23-all tie and take control of the game.
However, no sooner did the Cougars seem comfortable in their play then Warner Pacific roared back, humiliating a Cougar defense then went AWOL over the final 6 minutes of the half. The Knights blitzed Azusa Pacific with a 20-5 run that resulted in a 49-42 WPC lead at the half. First-time starter Pat Oury led the charge back, scoring 14 of his season-high 18 points in the first half.
“We didn’t play together or take any pride in our defense in the first half,” said Azusa Pacific coach Justin Leslie. “We gave up way too many points for one half. Every time we got a lead, we got away from the things that got us there.”
The Cougars, though, got the message at halftime and immediately erased the Knight’s 7-point halftime advantage with 10-0 run led by Roberts’ 8 points in just 3 minutes of action.
“We picked up the defensive intensity in the second half,” said Roberts, who finished the game with a season-high 24 points on 11-for-13 shooting in just 29 minutes of play.
While Martin was cleaning the glass at one end on his way to his first-ever double-double as a Cougar with 20 points and a career-high 10 rebounds, at the other end Roberts was dropping in lay-ups off nifty passes from Martin, who also finished with a team-high 6 assists.
A 30-second timeout righted Warner Pacific’s play and once again the Knights caught fire, going on a 16-4 run highlighted by center Shane Stewart’s trey that put WPC back up by 9 at 65-56 with 11 minutes left in the game.
“Warner Pacific is a good team, and we knew they could score points quickly,” said Leslie. “They did just that. It’s hard to defend them because they have so many good shooters, and it’s even harder when they have a 6-9 center making threes.”
Buckled but not down for the count, the Cougar gathered themselves and rallied back with another long run, clicking off 11 straight points in just over 3 minutes to retake the lead at 67-65 on a strong Roberts’ drive to the basket.
“I like taking the ball to the hole,” said Roberts. “A lot of good things can happen when a defense collapses.”
As could be expected, Warner Pacific again answered and when Oury drained his third trey of the night, the Knights reassumed the lead at 72-71. However, back-to-back 3-pointers, first by Peter Bond, who was making his first collegiate start, and then another by Martin gave Azusa Pacific a 77-72 lead with 5 minutes to play and the Cougars would never trail again, though Warner Pacific did make it interesting again.
Stewart, who canned 5 treys on the night as all part of his 17-point performance, nailed consecutive 3-pointers to pull the Knights to within a point at 82-81 with 2:58 remaining. After a Cougar turnover, WPC had a chance to take the lead, but Cougar reserve Kimarley Williams stole the ball and Roberts responded with a 10-foot, one-handed high archer that hit nothing but net to put Azusa Pacific back up by 3 at 84-81.
“It was kind of an awkward shot, but I have confidence in it,” said Roberts. “I like those shots like that.”
Stewart was then long on another attempted 3-pointer and the Cougars answered when 5-foot-9 fourth-string point guard Ashton Roberts, the Cougars’ only true point guard currently available (the other 3 ahead of him are out with injuries), drove hard to the basket and converted a twisting lay-up amongst the Knights’ big men.
“I was yelling ‘take the ball out, take the ball out,’” said Leslie of Roberts’ drive to the basket. “But he made a big shot for us. He is stepping up when we need it. He is filling a big hole for us now, and what he may lack in skill or knowledge he is making up with effort and intensity.”
Burgess recorded his second straight double-double and his third of the season with 15 points and a career-high 16 rebounds.
“Getting my confidence back has been pretty important me,” said the 6-foot-10 Burgess, who had played in just 11 games over the past 3 seasons while splitting time at BYU and Gonzaga. “It was pretty deteriorated after what I had been through the past few years, but I’m comfortable here (Azusa Pacific). When a coach has confidence in you, talks to you, gets on you, you know he cares about you. My confidence is building.”
“David still has a ton of work to do,” said Leslie, “but he is playing with better energy and effort every game out. He’s being vocal. He’s rebounding. We’ll get him to be a better shooter. I’m not worried about that.”
Williams added 6 points and a career-high 10 rebounds to go along with 2 blocked shots while holding WPC’s top scorer Scott O’Gallagher, who came in averaging nearly 22 points a game, to just 5-for-13 shooting.
The victory pushes Azusa Pacific’s winning streak to a season-best 3 in a row and improves the Cougars’ record to 8-4 on the season. Warner Pacific, which came in ranked No. 13 in the latest NAIA Division II Coaches Poll, falls to 6-5.
In tonight's other game of the Cougar Classic, top-ranked MidAmerica Nazarene University ran away from Hope International University with an 89-74 victory.
The Cougar Classic continues Saturday (Dec. 29) evening at the Felix Event Center on the campus of Azusa Pacific when Warner Pacific takes on Hope International at 5:30 p.m. followed by the Azusa Pacific-MidAmerica Nazarene game at 7:30 p.m.