AZUSA, Calif. – Azusa Pacific is the on rebound – back from the lower third of the Golden State Athletic Conference standings and now as the premier owner of the glass.
The Cougars posted an impressive 91-85 come-from-behind GSAC victory over the conference front-runner and the NAIA’s No. 5-ranked Concordia University Friday evening in the Felix Event Center. In the process of the upset victory, Azusa Pacific, which has won 13 of the 15 past GSAC championships, served noticed that it is more than just a dangerous team on the schedule, that it will fight for its dynasty and not go quietly into the night. These Cougars, it seems, are hitting their prime and becoming the team to beat down the stretch.
Behind Davon Roberts’ monster game of 32 points and14 rebounds tonight, Azusa Pacific avenged a deflating 25-point loss (81-56) at Concordia back in November. It was that loss that sent the Cougars plummeting to near the bottom of the GSAC standings, a region they hadn’t seen since 1991, and an area where they stayed until 3 weeks ago. Now, however, Azusa Pacific has won 4 of its past 5 conference games, beating along the way a pair of nationally-ranked teams, and has moved to within a 2 of games of first place. Granted there are only 7 games left on the conference slate, but at the very least the Cougars are hunting again.
“When we played in Irvine 2 months ago, you had a Concordia team with nearly everyone back from an NAIA runner-up, GSAC champion,” said Cougar coach Justin Leslie. “We, on the other hand, had a lot of players without GSAC experience, especially our upper classmen. Now, this far into conference play, we’re just a different team. The guys are believing in themselves, and I’m excited about going forward.”
Azusa Pacific rallied from 10 down in the second-half to beat Concordia for the fifth time in the past 7 meetings. Trailing 52-42 and seeing the game beginning to slip away, the Cougars fashioned an impressive 16-2 turnaround (all part of a bigger 29-7 Cougar run) to take a 60-54 lead with 12 minutes left in the game. From there Azusa Pacific methodically picked apart Concordia’s high-pressure defense the rest of the evening, moving out to as much as a 12-point lead on a couple of occasions, including with less than a minute to play.
The Cougar defense continually came up with key stops, and if Concordia had any thought of a second-chance, Azusa Pacific wiped it away with an eye-popping, dominating performance on the glass. The Cougars out-rebounded Concordia, 48-24, and allowed the Eagles just 12 offensive rebounds.
“Concordia will not let you run an offense,” said Leslie, “so we told our big guys, ‘if you want the ball go get it on the offensive board, those may be the only chances you have to shoot tonight.’”
Roberts, who made yet another resounding case for conference player of the year honors with career high numbers in both points and rebounds, scored 21 of his 32 points during the Cougars’ second-half comeback.
“We had a game plan and we executed it,” said Roberts. “We learned how to handle their pressure defense. Teams focus on blocking out big Dave Burgess, and he takes out about 2 bodies, so I just came in from behind and cleaned up on rebounds he couldn’t get to.”
Roberts was seemingly unstoppable, and Concordia’s renowned defense which has made lesser men crumble in the heat of its pressure had no answer for Roberts, who at one point made 10 straight shots to highlight a Cougar team that made 21-of-36 shots over the final 20 minutes of play.
“I pray that I do, but I may never again coach another player like Davon,” said Leslie. “He is such a calm, cool, collected player with the natural ability to make unbelievable shots. He sees what the other team is going to give him, and then he takes advantage of it. I’ll say this, Davon is the one player I’d rather have more than anyone else in this conference and (Concordia’s) Terrence Worthy would be second.”
Behind Keith Lawrence’s 14 points, Concordia assumed a 45-38 lead at halftime. Lawrence drained deep bombs from all over the court, going 4-of-5 beyond the 3-point arc. In all, the Eagles made 7 first-half treys, including 3 during a 13-1 run that put Concordia up 29-22.
“They fell in love with the 3s,” added Leslie, “and I reminded our guys at halftime that you can’t sustain that kind of shooting. Point Loma didn’t against us, and we didn’t against Westmont. It’s fool’s gold, and I knew our chance to comeback would happen if Concordia kept shooting the 3.”
And the Eagles didn’t slow down their pace. They attempted a GSAC-season-high 40 shots from the 3-point arc.
Azusa Pacific employed a box-and-1 defense to slow Concordia’s Ryan Reed, who came into the game fourth in the GSAC in scoring at 16.9 a contest. With Cougar guard Mike Danielian shadowing Reed everywhere he went, the strategy worked, holding Reed to just 5 points on 1-for4 shooting. However, his one basket on the night was a 3-pointer that put the Eagles up 50-40 early in the second half, a 10-point advantage they held for a minute before the Cougars began their march back into the game and eventually to victory.
Senior guard Matt Oliver, who a year ago scored a career-high 22 points against Concordia in a thrilling victory in the Felix, came off the bench tonight to score 19 points, including 13 in the second half. He was the main benefactor of a “Princeton Offense” the Cougars used in the second half in which a cutting Oliver continually burned the Eagles. In fact, it was an Oliver lay-up with 13:38 left in the game that gave Azusa Pacific a 55-54 lead that it would not relinquish the rest of the way.
The Cougars who shot well in both halves, nonetheless got 10 more shots off over the final 20 minutes than they did in the first half, scoring a hefty 53 points, the most they’ve tallied against an NAIA team in one half in 2 years.
“We wanted to let their pressure give us shots”, said Leslie. “You have to be poised and prepared with good spacing on offense.”
Todd Martin, who played just 3 minutes in the first half after being saddled with 2 fouls, finished with 10 points and a game-high 6 assists. Burgess finished with 8 points and 11 rebounds.
“We stuck with our game plan and got the ball to Davon,” said Burgess. “With the game he was having I told him ‘every time you touch the ball shoot it or go to the basket.’ He had the hot hand, and I was going after the rebounds. We also locked down on defense, talking and directing traffic.”
“We spent a lot of time before this game telling Dave how he could impact the game without touching the ball because Concordia was not going to allow us to do that,” said Leslie. “He knew he’d have to contribute defensively, get rebounds, and talking and telling everyone where they needed to be. He bought in and did a phenomenal job.”
Lawrence finished with 21 points to lead Concordia. Rafael DaSilva and Worthy each added 14.
“Chemistry, practice and finding ourselves,” said Burgess when asked to explain the difference between Azusa Pacific’s 25-point loss at Concordia in November and tonight’s victory over the NAIA’s fifth-ranked team. “We’re getting better each practice.”
And with that, getting closer to the top of the standings.
With the victory, Azusa Pacific improves to 15-8 overall, 8-5 in the GSAC. Concordia falls to 19-3 overall, 10-3 in the GSAC.